By Mike Brownfield
The state of Wisconsin has once again lived up to its billing as a Midwestern incubator of Big Ideas. In yesterday’s case, when voters resoundingly defeated a liberal effort to recall Governor Scott Walker (R), the Big Idea was that reformers who come armed with the strength of their convictions can carry the day–even against mobs, labor unions, Hollywood, the media, academia and everything else the left throws up these days. All reformers need to do is lead.
In Walker’s case, his weapon in the fight against out-of-control government was a promise to the voters of Wisconsin that, were he entrusted with their vote, he would bring sweeping reforms to state government. One year ago, Governor Walker fulfilled that promise, and last night the voters rewarded him for his leadership by resoundingly rejecting an effort to remove him from power.
It was a historic recall election that focused nationwide attention on what has become an existential threat to state governments — the problem of public-sector employee pensions and benefits running states into the red. Walker unabashedly confronted that threat without straddling a fence or tiptoeing around Big Labor’s Maginot Line. Facing a $3.6 billion deficit and the fourth highest tax burden in the country, Walker instituted policies designed to bring some sanity to state government. Those reforms included asking public sector workers to contribute a modest 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums while also limiting the collective bargaining power of public sector unions. (Even that is a small amount, as Heritage’s Jason Richwine shows in a new paper examining the true costs of public pensions.)
Those moderate policies sent labor unions and their allies into full-on crisis mode. Tens of thousands of protesters stormed Wisconsin’s capitol last spring, Democratic state senators fled the state in hopes of blocking a vote on the measures, and lawsuits were filed to block the law from taking effect. Ultimately, Walker’s reforms were upheld, yet a massive effort to recall the governor was undertaken.
In short order, a massive campaign to unseat Walker was launched. Unions poured millions of dollars into the race to attack the governor, President Barack Obama weighed in on the eve of the election (albeit timidly, with a Tweet) and endorsed Walker’s opponent, and grassroots armies descended on the state to turn out the vote. Yesterday, the voters of Wisconsin had an opportunity to examine the governor’s reforms and render a verdict on whether they approved of the direction he has taken their state.
One of Governor Walker’s reforms included giving government workers the option to choose whether they wanted to pay union dues. When given the option, tens of thousands of members chose to leave the union. And according to exit polls, a third of union households backed Walker. But union leadership remains out of touch with the fiscal crisis Wisconsin, and our nation, faces. Yet as the people of Wisconsin know, Walker’s reforms have helped Wisconsin turn the corner. Since Walker took office, the state unemployment rate has fallen from 7.7 percent to 6.8 percent— well below the national average of 8.2 percent. And last year, Wisconsin employers actually created 23,000 jobs. In other words, Wisconsin’s economy is growing all while the rest of the country faces very troubled economic time.
Walker’s victory will send shockwaves across the country. Last year, the governor took a strong stand for the proposition that public sector unions should not negotiate their taxpayer-funded benefits with politicians they helped elect using mandatory dues. And he also stood for reforms that curbed spending and got his state’s budget under control — without raising taxes. Despite facing a recall election, Walker was ultimately rewarded for a job well done.
There have only been three gubernatorial recall elections in U.S. history, and Walker was the first one to survive the challenge. As Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal said last night on Fox News, “What Scott Walker has proved tonight is that good policy makes great politics.”
Mike Brownfield is Assistant Director of Strategic Communications at The Heritage Foundation. He serves as editor of The Foundry, Heritage’s public policy news blog where this article originally published on June 6, 2012.