Can Burke Beat Walker?
The 2014 campaign may depend on which candidate has the best story to tell.
The 2014 election for governor is less than one year from now. That’s sooner than you might think. By this spring we may begin to see a narrative for the election established. And often times it’s the best story that wins.
Mary Burke, widely assumed to be the likely Democratic candidate for governor, has barely begun to tell a story. She may face a primary challenge from state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) and is being cagey about how much she says to the press.
By contrast, Gov. Scott Walker has already begun rehearsing the story of his upcoming campaign. He was “Unintimidated,” as his book’s title declares, he stood up to special interests who run the unions and were driving up the costs of government. He cut spending, balanced the budget and cut taxes. He made this a more business-friendly state and greatly lowered unemployment, helping us recover from the bad old days under former Gov. Jim Doyle.
Some of this, of course, is not quite true. Walker did make significant cuts in spending but the overall state budget has grown by 8 percent, increasing the biennial budget to $67.6 billion, or about $4.6 billion higher than the final, $63 billion budget under Doyle. As for balancing the budget, the state deficit has declined somewhat, from $2.99 billion to $2.64 billion, but it’s still one of the biggest structural deficits in the country, as I’ve previously reported. Meanwhile, Walker has pushed the state’s bonded indebtedness to the highest level in history. Finally, as Bruce Thompson’s analysis has shown, most of the decline in Wisconsin’s unemployment rate actually occurred under Doyle.
As it happens there is such a story to be found just next door, in neighboring Minnesota, a state with many similarities to Wisconsin. As political science professor Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota wrote in an op ed for the New York Times, the two states allow for a interesting measurement of conservative versus liberal polices, because Minnesota elected a Democratic governor, Mark Dayton in 2010.
While Walker lowered income taxes, delivering 60 percent of the tax cut to those making more than $100,000 a year, Dayton and the Minnesota legislature raised taxes by $2.1 billion, “the largest increase in recent state history,” Jacobs notes. “Democrats…targeted the top 1 percent of earners to pay 62 percent of the new taxes,” almost the exact reverse of what Walker did.
Walker also reduced the earned income tax credit for the working poor and the Homestead Tax Credit for low income homeowners and renters — money that would likely be spent immediately on consumer purchases and help increase business sales. Dayton took the money from the top 1 percent of the wealthiest people, who are unlikely to change their retail spending as a result.
The results to date show Wisconsin hasn’t grown jobs much and now ranks 34th among the states in job growth. Minnesota, by contrast, ranks fifth. Forbes magazine ranks Minnesota as the eighth best state for business, while Wisconsin ranks 41st.
In Minnesota, Dayton invested 71 percent of the new revenue in funding for K-12 schools and higher education as well as all-day kindergarten and pre-school education. Walker’s budget included the seventh-sharpest decline in education funding in the nation.
Walker declined the additional federal funding for Medicaid, even though the federal government covered all costs for three years. He also declined to create a state insurance exchange under Obamacare. Dayton and Minnesota created a state insurance exchange which enrolled more than 90 percent of its first month’s target, Jacobs notes, and this contributed to a medical care system that has much lower premiums for the insured than in Wisconsin.
Walker has been very adroit politically, blasting the problems of the federal website for Obamacare. But a savvy Democrat might say this: as governor I would have solved the problem rather than blaming others. I would have created a successful health care exchange like in Minnesota and California and today we would have far more health care coverage and lower average premiums for our citizens.
This is also where Walker’s presidential aspirations are relevant. Walker has refused to guarantee that he will finish out a second term as governor, and may have to step down if he wants to concentrate on the 2016 presidential race. That’s a theoretical issue that might have no impact in the governor’s race — unless the Democratic candidate shows its real world impact.
A long list of Republican governors accepted the additional federal funding for Medicaid. Walker refused, which gives him bragging rights as the most conservative Republican in the 2016 presidential primary. But it meanwhile leaves more than 84,000 Wisconsin citizens without health insurance that they could have had for three years.
If I were the Democratic candidate, I would look for every way to relate Walker’s policies to his run for president. Most people in this state, I suspect, favor the earned income tax credit. Indeed, the measure was created in 1989 by Republicans in Wisconsin as a way to support work, not welfare. But for the conservatives who vote in a Republican primary — and whose votes Walker needs — anything that cuts taxes will look good.
Similarly, I would argue that a governor concerned with the long-term health of the state would not drive its bonded indebtedness to the highest level in history. That’s the policy of a governor who doesn’t intend to stay in office very long. And while slashing education spending may have no short-term impact, it will in the long run, as classes get bigger and school resources are stretched, but the impact on student achievement will come long after Walker has moved on to a run for president.
You might also argue that a governor who was less concerned with making his name nationally would have accepted the deal offered by Democrats and union leaders — to cut the health insurance and pension benefits of government workers — instead of crushing union rights and plunging this state into a state of interminable political war. Indeed, former Republican governor Tommy Thompson clearly favored a less-radical approach. A good leader knows how to compromise, but a candidate with his eye on the Republican presidential primary has different priorities.
Burke is frankly a long shot as candidate. Her resume is thin, and while she has personal wealth it’s still not clear how much of it she is willing to spend. Vinehout is even a longer shot. But either potential candidate will need a strong story to tell — or she won’t have a chance.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel embarrassed itself again with a Politifact column. Once again it was written by Tom Kertscher, who seems to be the go-to guy for Politifact columns slanted to help Republicans.
He quotes Mary Burke who says this: “I’m concerned that the state budget has actually grown by $4.6 billion under this administration, which makes it harder and harder to keep taxes lower.” To test this, Kertscher, contacts the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which says the budget has increased by $4.67 billion. In short, Burke’s comment is factual.
Kertscher, however, proceeds to stand on his head to turn this fact into something else. He quotes Walker’s press secretary Tom Evenson blaming the situation on a rise in the cost of Medicaid and on past commitments made by former governor Doyle. Therefore, Kertscher rates Burke’s statement as “half true.”
Kertscher makes this conclusion based on a Republican response with no rejoinder by Democrats, which immediately tilts the scale. And he violates the time-honored maxim that a governor or president is responsible for what happens on his/her watch. Walker has had no problem whatsoever canceling other commitments of Doyle. He is in the driver’s seat as governor.
Kerstcher’s column turns Politifact into Politi-Interpretation. The original premise of the column — a good one — is to establish agreed-upon facts. The fact is that the budget increased under Walker by exactly the amount Burke said. When the candidates argue about why that is so, that might call for another Politifact. But for now, Burke’s statement isn’t half true, it’s dead right.