There are at least three important questions that voters should ask themselves before entering the ballot box. What is the candidate's political philosophy? What is his administrative legacy? And what is his political viability? This paper will examine how well Scott Walker performs in each of these three categories.
In recent months, Scott Walker has made known at least three propositional truths: tax reductions stimulate the economy; tax hikes encourage businesses to move out; and federal handouts usually come with strings attached. Walker's position on these propositional truths have not only helped him etch his fiscal philosophy into the minds of the public, but has also established a platform for his gubernatorial campaign.
Earlier this year, Walker took a bold public stance against making a wish list for federal stimulus funds. It was not the popular thing to do, but Walker stuck to his guns and stated he would not pursue stimulus handouts that required an additional contribution from taxpayers. Walker's criteria of accepting federal stimulus funds was conditional and based upon no local matches, no additional financial commitments, and no continued operational overhead. With a Wisconsin budget deficit nearing a record $7 billion, Walker wasn't willing to ask taxpayers to spend more money.
Although Walker clearly rejected the idea of using stimulus funds to exacerbate Wisconsin's fiscal crisis, he did not reject the idea of using federal funds to stimulate the private sector. Walker had proposed using Wisconsin's share of the stimulus to institute a ten-month suspension of the state sales tax. This alone would have provided taxpayers about $3.26 billion in tax relief. More importantly, it would have stimulated more consumer spending, encouraged more business investments, producing more government revenue by widening the tax base, and it would have provided fiscal relief to the lowest earners. Governor Doyle, however, rejected this idea. And as a result, low income families lost out when purchasing retail products like food, clothing, toiletries, and school supplies for their children.
Just as tax cuts promote more business growth, tax hikes tend to choke them out. Scott Walker has been a vocal opponent of increasing taxes stating it would lead to "a tax island." And he was proven right. This year alone, Briggs and Stratton (530 jobs) and Thomas Products (366 jobs) transferred work out of Wisconsin to states that have more business friendly incentives and tax rates. In fact, Mercury Marine was prepared to move to Oklahoma until local and state officials intervened and provided them a $50 million low-interest, performance-based, collateralized loan. The result of Mercury Marine leaving would have produced a net loss of 8,000 jobs and $450 million in annual earnings. If Wisconsin already had a business friendly tax climate, state officials wouldn't need to dress up incentive packages in order to prevent businesses from leaving.
In the past few years, a tax and spend governor working with a tax and spend legislature have successfully created one of the worse business climates in the nation. They succeeded at reducing the capital gains exemption from 60% to 40%, which will cost businesses about $230 million a year. They've instituted a combined reporting law, which will cost businesses about $110 million a year. And they've increased income taxes on the most productive and top earners from 6.75% to 7.75%, which will influence the tactics of small business location. Furthermore, Governor Doyle and the State Legislature have recently signed a budget that will increase taxes by 6% (about $2 billion). All of these decisions, in an effort to raise more government revenue, will cost the state substantially more in the long run. As it stands, Wisconsin ranks 38 out of 50 for having the worst business climate in the nation.
When the combined reporting law was debated, Walker openly opposed it and promised to abolish it if elected to governor. Unfortunately, the law was passed in June and was set to be retroactive to January of 2009. Madison Democrats made sure an opportunity wasn't missed to seize six months of revenue from Wisconsin businesses performing operations out of state. Combined reporting specifically hurt Harley Davidson. The new law reportedly cost Harley an additional $22.5 million in the first quarter alone. Two weeks later, Harley laid off 400 workers. This may shed some light on the most recent Harley announcement to lay off another 645 workers near the end of the month.
Since Scott Walker has become the Milwaukee County Executive, he has introduced seven consecutive budgets with a $0 property tax levy increase. This means that the budgetary process starts on the right foot and sets a fiscally responsible tone for the entire tenor of the budgetary process. According to Walker, "Every dollar spent should be scrutinized and justified, not simply given a blind percentage increase."
Walker describes his spending philosophy in one concise sentence stating, "The budget process should be about funding essential government services based on the taxpayers' ability to pay." And Walker has certainly stayed true to this precept. He has decreased the annual debt flow by 36% and has reduced the county debt by 10% overall. Not only has Walker demonstrated that he can run a budget without acquiring a deficit, but his 2007 budget yielded a surplus of over $7 million. He was able to do this by making tough choices and reducing the county work force by 20%.
Tempering the county's spending appetite can be a difficult task for a conservative politician. The Milwaukee County Board routinely rejects Walker's proposals, which include privatizing hospital and airport positions, converting full-time park-maintenance jobs into seasonal positions, and raising bus fares to reduce county debt. Each of these proposals, if accepted, would save the county sizable sums of cash, and thus compelling the system to run more efficiently. In a recent audit, for example, the state concluded that when compared to its peers, the Milwaukee County Transit System consistently delivers more rides for less cost, has the lowest per passenger cost, and has the highest ridership per capita. And another study by the Reason Foundation concluded that Milwaukee County's transit system is "efficient and effective."
Milwaukee County's parks have also received some positive recognition. Earlier this year, the Milwaukee County Parks Department was selected as one of the top four finalists for the 2009 national Gold Medal for Excellence. The award is based off a 12 minute video and a copy of their master plan, which was submitted to a distinguished panel of experts in parks, recreation, and conservation management. And the "American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration" and the "National Recreation and Park Association" will determine the winner of the award this autumn. This special recognition demonstrates that Walker's commitment to fiscal restraint and operational efficiency does not impede quality management.
Speaking of efficiency, another recent notch in Walker's belt is the Mitchell International Airport (MKE). MKE is owned by Milwaukee County, operated by the Department of Transportation, and is under the policy direction of Walker and the Milwaukee County Board. Mitchell Airport has had 17 straight months of record growth raking in a record of 7,956,968 travelers in 2007. And earlier this week, renowned travel expert Chris Elliott rated Mitchell International Airport as the number one least expensive destination for fall travel, out-besting Denver, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Tampa. Not only does Mitchell Airport lead the nation in competitive pricing, but the airport is entirely funded by user fees. Milwaukee's number one slot for travel destinations is evidence that competition among airlines result in great bargains for travelers in both Wisconsin and Illinois.
And finally, the county's Behavior Health Division ran a "Wrap Around" program that served to unite multiple care agencies into a single integrated system designed to care for people of youth with diagnosable mental disorders. The program was such a success that it won the 2009 Annie E. Casey Innovations Award in Children and Family System Reform given by Harvard University. And the "Wraparound" program is also one of six government initiatives honored as "Innovations in American Government Award" winners. All of these recent recognitions and achievements demonstrate that Scott Walker has a strong administrative legacy.
Political viability comes in many forms. For some, it's a matter of name recognition (e.g., Bush, Kennedy). For others, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. For Scott Walker, however, political viability is something quite different. First and most interestingly, Walker has demonstrated a certain proficiency at winning elections. In the world of politics, Walker has a perfect record at winning election contests. Secondly, Walker has proven to be popular in Milwaukee County, which is no small feat for a conservative politician. Until Walker, no Republican has ever held the Milwaukee County Executive position. And thirdly, Walker has acquired the support of a vast majority of Wisconsin's past and present GOP leaders. Let's take a closer look at these three items.
After securing a State Assembly seat in 1993, Walker has won every successive re-election bid until he sought the office of Milwaukee County Executive. In 2002, Scott Walker was the first Republican ever to be elected to Milwaukee County Executive. And after acquiring the seat of County Executive, Walker has won all three re-election bids in Milwaukee. Walker's political dominance in Milwaukee illustrates an effective salesmanship and an expert knowledge at waging successful campaigns.
Politically speaking, Milwaukee and Madison are democrat havens. With a collective population of 813,000, these cities tend to pack a pungent one-two punch for liberal candidates. Walker's situation, however, is somewhat anomalous. Walker's popularity in Milwaukee means at least two things. It means he is a more viable GOP candidate than say Mark Neumann. And second, it means that Democrat contenders will lose the advantage of Milwaukee County as a political springboard for their election bid. The one exception to this rule is possibly Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, if he were to run for governor.
And finally, Walker has won the overwhelming political and financial support of his party. Over 150 current and former GOP party officials support his run for governor, not to mention 48 Assembly and Senate Republicans. Therefore, Scott Walker's political capacity to wage a skillful and enterprising war for governor makes him a formidable opponent.
A lot can change over the course of 400 days. Ultimately, voters will look at these categories (including others not mentioned) when they pull the lever for a new governor. When that decision comes, I can only hope that it's not on a partisan basis. Instead, voters ought to look at a candidate's demonstrated leadership, history of protecting the taxpayer, and overall record of achievement.
Although Governor Doyle is not running for re-election, he provides us a good contrast to good leadership. In the past eight years, Doyle has promised to cut 10,000 jobs in order to mitigate costs, but has never reached his goal. Walker, on the other hand, effectively reduced his workforce by 20%, saving Milwaukee County millions of dollars. While the state's bond rating lowered in the past 7 years, Milwaukee County's bond rating continued to improve. Moody's attributed Milwaukee's strong bond rating to "strong management and prudent budgetary controls." While Doyle drove up the state deficit to over $6.5 billion, Walker finished 2007 with a 7.9 million dollar surplus. Voters should remember that true leadership requires more than just promises, it requires succinct results. The numbers show that Scott Walker has demonstrated true leadership and remarkable achievement. The choice is yours'. Who will you put in the governor's mansion in 2010?