As of this writing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has yet to formally declare his bid for President in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped him from campaigning for it. Arguably, he’s been campaigning for President ever since winning his first election for Governor in 2010.
Seen in this light, all of the extreme, unconstitutional, and potentially illegal actions Walker’s administration has undertaken make a twisted kind of sense. His slash-and-burn policies of the past four years have nothing to do with responsible state governance. But they do signal to billionaire GOP campaign donors that he is willing to ride roughshod over the needs of the people in Wisconsin to prove that he can do the two things required of any contender for top office: Concentrate power in the executive office and redistribute wealth upwards.
Those were the hallmarks of the George W. Bush administrations and they have been the twin pillars of Walker’s reign as Wisconsin’s Governor. After four years of administrative power grabs, regressive social policies, and massive tax cuts and giveaways to the wealthy, it is clear that Walker’s view of the people, institutions, and resources of Wisconsin amounts to not much more than grist for his political ambition mill.
Rolling back voting rights, environmental and consumer protections, workers’ rights, health care, food and housing supports for people in need, and women’s rights while systematically dismantling public education are not the actions of an administration that plans on sticking around to manage the fallout.
Walker’s modus operandi has been to push—and cross—the boundaries of legality to favor the interests of out-of-state energy, private education, and high finance industries. Only one of the 14 billionaires who donated directly to his 2012 recall election campaign comes from Wisconsin.
In this post-Citizens United world where dark money reigns, these extreme actions on behalf of billionaire donors make Walker a viable Presidential candidate. Never mind that he can’t deliver a coherent answer to relatively simple and predictable questions from the national media. Forget about the criminal defense fund that he’s amassed to defend himself against accusations of illegal campaign activities. And the financial and institutional wreck that Walker will leave in his wake is not that big of a deal to those whose interest lies in plundering Wisconsin’s natural resources and making a buck off the human desperation that results from the lack of investment in public education, healthcare, and social support services.
The audience for Walker’s rare public addresses is clearly not the people of Wisconsin but rather potential donors. The ideologically charged statements in last week’s budget address— “Our plan is based on growth and opportunity—which leads to freedom and prosperity for all,” and “Our plan will use common sense reforms to create a government that is limited in scope and—ultimately—more effective, more efficient, and more accountable to the public,”—are little more than verbal reassurances to his political backers that he is still on their side.
Thanks to the Republican sweep of both houses of the state legislature in 2010 and the insurgency of the extremist Tea Party faction within the Wisconsin GOP, Walker has been wildly successful at aggregating political power within the executive branch in order to have undue influence over decisions about how resources are allocated, and ultimately to shift how state monies are spent, redistributing them upwards. From the hollowing out of state agencies to the successful promotion of a constitutional amendment that creates a guaranteed pot of money for road-builders, the Walker administration is creating a governmental structure that weakens checks and balances and renders the Office of the Governor extremely vulnerable to manipulation from campaign donors.
One of Walker’s first accomplishments in 2011 was to get the Legislature to pass a law that rescinds their oversight over the rule-making process in state agencies. Act 21 eliminated the ability of the legislature to influence the rules that executive agencies make to implement the laws passed by the legislature. He then signed an executive order creating the Office of Regulatory Compliance—the secular equivalent to the Office of the Inquisition. The ORC pre-approves all proposed rules to ensure that the agencies interpret the intent in a politically and ideologically correct manner that favors big business.
In the proposed 2015–2017 budget, the HR and IT departments of all agencies with fewer than 150 employees are abolished and the functions are transferred to Walker’s highly centralized and autocratic Department of Administration. The budget also creates a new propaganda arm of the administration by shifting all state agencies’ marketing and outreach functions into the closely controlled Department of Tourism.
Four of the first five laws Walker signed as Governor in 2011 were tax credits that resulted in hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars lining the pockets of wealthy business owners. The fifth law was a so-called “tort reform” measure that significantly weakens consumer protections and protects weapons manufacturers and distributors and negligent nursing home operators from lawsuits.
The redistribution of wealth through tax cuts and credits to the wealthy went hand in hand with the reduction of tax credits such as the Homestead Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit to people with low incomes. With these measures, Walker literally took money out of the pockets of poor people and put it in the already bulging bank accounts of the wealthy.
But it’s not only poor people who are affected by these reverse Robin Hood policies. Society as a whole is hurt when the commons are raided for private gain. Billions of dollars were cut from the public k–12 education budget and hundreds of millions more were transferred away from public schools into the private, for-profit religious and charter schools during Walker’s reign. Wisconsin is in the process of creating a separate and unequal education system where public money is going to fund private for-profit schools that are not subject to the kinds of oversight or accountability measures demanded of public schools.
Much like the constitutional guarantee for road-builders, money to fund the voucher and independent charter schools is taken off the top of the state education budget. After the private, for-profit schools get their public funding the remainder of the 424 school districts in the state divide up what’s left over. And thanks to levy limits and revenue caps, local school districts have a difficult time raising money to fill the ever-widening gaps between state aid and what it takes to adequately maintain their schools.
Rural schools and the Milwaukee Public Schools have been the hardest hit. Rural school districts have been consolidated multiple times, to the point where it takes some kids over an hour to get to their school on the bus. Milwaukee Public Schools have been de-funded, charter-ized and voucher-ized. The voucher school movement started in Milwaukee in the 1990s, and much of the public education money in that city is going to publicly unaccountable private entities, many of which are unethical fly-by-night operations that are abusive to children and exploitative of parents.
Pushing Wisconsinites to the point of mass rebellion in 2011 with the attack on teachers and the subsequent gutting of school budgets was a gamble that paid off for Walker’s political ambitions. He raised more than $45 million in the 2012 recall election, much of that from the Devos and Walton families and their “school choice” groups. The school privatization lobby also constituted the biggest donor base for his 2014 re-election.
As the 2016 campaign season gets rolling, deliberations on Wisconsin’s biennial budget may serve as the proving grounds for Walker’s Presidential aspirations. Statewide opposition is mounting against his proposal to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System budget and to privatize the 26 campuses. If Wisconsinites can push back hard enough to convince the legislature to rein in Walker’s excesses, that may take the shine off his fundraising prospects. But regardless of Walker’s political fate, the people of Wisconsin still must contend with the enduring legacy and continued elaboration of the extreme forms of austerity and control that Scott Walker imposed on the state in 2011.
Rebecca Kemble is a political contributor for The Progressive.