February 23, 2011
The View from WisconsinBy Frank Burke
For those outside the state to fully appreciate the significance of what is happening in Wisconsin, it is necessary to understand the local political situation over the past decade.
To conservatives and to many moderates, the capture of the governorship, the state senate and assembly, two House seats, and the Senate seat formerly held by Russ Feingold, produced a feeling that can only be described as liberation. The total Democratic control that accompanied the Doyle administration resulted in a climate that in its fiscal, legal, and ethical lapses was extraordinary even for a state as politically eccentric as Wisconsin.
Often cited as the state that produced both Bob La Fallotte and Joe McCarthy, Wisconsin politics has generally trended to the populist/liberal. Milwaukee was the first major city to elect a Socialist, Emil Seidel, as Mayor (1910). He was succeeded by another Socialist, Dan Hoan, who led the longest continuous Socialist administration in U.S. history. (Appropriately, a misguided and now deteriorated public works project, known locally as the "Bridge to Nowhere," was named for Hoan.)
In recent years, the political and social structures erected and augmented by Democratic administrations were left largely untouched by Republicans. In his second term, the last Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, embarked on a large number of wasteful, big-spending projects that generated higher taxes. Under his aegis, the citizens of surrounding counties were forced to pay taxes to finance the building of Miller Park on behalf of Milwaukee Brewers owner, Bud Selig. When Thompson left to join the cabinet of George W. Bush as Secretary of Health and Human Services, his successor, Scott McCallum, had to use Wisconsin's share of the tobacco settlement funds to cover budget deficits.
While Thompson can be credited for such initiatives as the School Choice Program and welfare reform, his free-spending ways alienated conservatives and paved the way to McCallum's defeat in 2002, as did the campaign of his libertarian brother, Ed Thompson.
The Doyle administration quickly became known as a tax-and-spend, pay-for-play, juggernaut with little or no sense of fiscal or ethical responsibilities. To cover budget shortfalls, Doyle resorted to the illegal seizure of state funds contributed by doctors to alleviate the cost of medical malpractice. Courts have since declared that the money seized must be repaid. Other irregularities included an attempt by the governor to become the sole bargaining agent with tribal gaming casinos, and utilizing stimulus money intended for high-speed rail to purchase equipment made in Spain. Disregarding massive popular support and a reaffirmation of the Second Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court, he vetoed concealed carry legislation that would have made it possible for responsible private citizens to carry concealed weapons. (Wisconsin is one of only two states that ban concealed/carry.)
Despite numerous instances of extensive election fraud, Doyle resisted any reform attempts and vetoed a bill requiring photo ID. His anti-business stance was evident in refusing to curb the lawsuit abuse that made the state a Mecca for trial lawyers. Just as numerous film companies were discovering the advantages of shooting at Wisconsin locations, he rescinded the tax advantages that were helping to attract them.
Doyle also refused to rein in the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) which has become a quasi-shadow government and extended its power far beyond the scope of its original charter. Most recently, through a combination of junk science and bad research, it has managed to decimate Wisconsin's deer herd - a severe blow to one of the primary tourist lures.
Nor was Doyle the only problem. Russ Feingold's defeat was primarily due to his refusal to heed his constituency on the matter of ObamaCare. In news footage of town hall meetings, he could be seen arrogantly laughing at the voters who questioned him. While styling himself a maverick, he continually jumped into line in support of liberal legislation. His most single accomplishment, the McCain-Feingold Act, could not pass constitutional muster.
Wisconsin's other Senator, Herb Kohl -- known as "Senator Do-Nothing" -- is a multi-millionaire who spent an average of 12 dollars per vote to become reelected.
Perhaps what is most important and what is not being mentioned in the news reports from Madison is the performance of the teachers in the Milwaukee Public School System; the same teachers who forced the closure of the city schools on Friday. As one of 17 urban districts with a graduation rate below 50 percent, the system is in serious trouble. Further, as recently as the 2005-6 school year (the last year for which this data is publicly available), there were over 11,000 calls to police from Milwaukee public schools. For example, the city's vocational school, Bradley Tech, was thoroughly refurbished and reequipped by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in memory of its founders. Despite this, it has become a hotbed of violence, gang activity, and narcotics trafficking. When large-scale fights have broken out in the school, students have called their parents by cell phones to have the parents come and join the melee.
The school board, mainly populated by representatives sympathetic to the teachers' union, continues to raise taxes to finance increased salaries and benefits. On a national level, Obama's first stimulus package included money to finance the construction of more Milwaukee schools, despite the fact that five school buildings currently stand empty.
The problem has reached such proportions that even Democrats have noticed. Within the last year, it has been suggested that the school system be broken into a number of regions under separate administrators so as to make the situation more controllable. The public is currently awaiting recommendations contained in Governor Walker's comprehensive budget proposal. The fact remains that the citizens of Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, are aware that there must be significant changes -- and that these do not include rewards to perpetuate dysfunctional school systems.
As Milwaukee County Executive, Scott Walker inherited a financial mess created by his predecessor. A strong proponent of not raising taxes, he vetoed numerous bills in an effort to control the County's finances. Since he has assumed the governorship, he has instituted tort reform, generated a package of business incentives to put people back to work, and undertaken steps toward election reform. Regardless of the mobs of demonstrators, many of whom come from out of state on the behest of the Obama administration and its union cronies, the people of Wisconsin enthusiastically support his efforts. They have lived with the alternative for too long.
The combination of past fiscal irresponsibility by both political parties but most especially by the Doyle administration, coupled with the entitlement philosophy of the teachers' unions and other public sector unions, has resulted in the loss of both jobs and population. This has not gone unnoticed by other states that have avidly pursued Wisconsin companies with packages of incentives and tax advantages. Only serious concessions by the private sector unions have enabled two of the state's signature companies -- Mercury Marine and Harley-Davidson -- to remain. Governor Walker's valiant struggle certainly has national implications. For the majority of Wisconsin's citizens, it represents a major step on the long road toward rebuilding, repositioning, and reviving a state that has much to offer.
As the state motto exhorts: "Forward!"