Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Wisconsin’s Top 10 Political Stories Of 2015

Walker and Republican legislators dominate this year's top political stories in Wisconsin.

By - Dec 28th, 2015 02:33 pm
Scott Walker's Canadian Border Wall

Scott Walker’s Canadian Border Wall

The five-year pattern of major Wisconsin political news continued this year, prompting this Top 10 list.

No. 1: Republican Gov. Scott Walker runs for president.

Walker announced he would run for president in July but dropped out in September. Walker peaked in the wrong January—January of this year, and not in the January 2016 days before the Iowa caucuses.

Walker said he learned how difficult it was to serve as governor and run for president. Republican legislative leaders learned to fill in the power vacuum caused by his campaign-trail absences. The year ended with one of his ex-rivals for president, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, asking GOP donors to help pay off Walker’s campaign debts.

No. 2: Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville is first U.S. House speaker elected from Wisconsin.

Ryan enjoyed a December honeymoon, getting bills passed to fund the federal government and pay for five years of transportation spending, although both measures worsened the federal deficit.

But the nine House speakers since 1970, the year Ryan was born, have served an average of five years and a few months. In toxic Washington, will Ryan be able to last that long?

No. 3: Government Accountability Board (GAB) is dismantled, replaced with elections, ethics commissions.

Fed up at a board of retired judges they could not control, and angry at what they insisted was the GAB’s anti-Walker “witch hunt,” Republican lawmakers decided they would rather handpick regulators of elections, campaign finance and ethics laws.

Their motto: Regulate like it’s 2007, the year GAB was created.

No. 4: Federal, state judges end John Doe II, and Legislature narrows scope of future John Doe investigations.

John Doe I resulted in criminal convictions for aides to then-Milwaukee County Executive Walker. But John Doe II’s focus on Gov. Walker and his supporters provided talking points to abolish the GAB and led Republicans to stop just short of repealing laws authorizing secret John Doe investigations led by local district attorneys. Instead, future John Does cannot focus on nonviolent crimes by politicians.

No. 5: New state budget is approved.

GOP legislators missed the July 1 deadline but finally pushed through a 2015-17 budget that borrowed $850 million for highways, cut $250 million in aid to the UW System over two years, expanded the private-school choice program statewide and will test more recipients of public benefits for drugs.
Legislators’ last-minute attempt to repeal open-records rules covering the legislative and executive branches of governments failed, however.

No. 6: Supreme Court Chief Justice Pat Roggensack replaces former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson after voters amend the state constitution to let justices elect the chief.

Justice Rebecca Bradley was appointed—her third appointment by Walker—after the September death of Justice Pat Crooks. To stay on the court, Bradley will have to win an April election.

No. 7: Problems plague WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.).

Concerns deepened with disclosures that applicants’ debts were not checked and that former DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch personally pushed for a loan to a Walker campaign contributor. The revolving door of senior staffers continued, and a new CEO—Mark Hogan—was named to pick up the pieces.

One indication of how deep WEDC’s problems were was passage of a bill, signed by Walker, that removed Walker and future governors from the agency’s board.

No. 8: Right-to-work law passes.

Approval came although Republican legislators and Walker had downplayed it as a priority before the 2014 elections.

No. 9: Bucks get public funding for new arena.

Some $250 million in public funding was approved for the downtown Milwaukee Bucks arena—half of its expected cost. The push to keep the Bucks united Walker and two Democrats—Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Mayor Tom Barrett—but wasn’t supported by all Milwaukee legislators.

No. 10: Scandal strikes Tomah VA Hospital.

Problems stemmed from overprescribing of drugs to vets, triggering firings, a formal VA investigation and a congressional hearing at the facility.

The scandal forced Wisconsin’s two much different senators, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin, to confront difficult questions: Why were medical professionals, whose jobs were caring for veterans, giving patients enough drugs to kill them? What are you doing about it?

Honorable Mentions:

*New campaign-finance laws—first major update since 1970s—will allow corporate donations before November elections.

*A new law bans non-emergency abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

*Ex-Sen. Russ Feingold re-emerges, setting up a rematch between the Democrat and Johnson.

*Walker kills a proposed Kenosha casino, despite support from federal and local governments.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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