Now that Scott Walker has left office as Wisconsin’s governor, we can begin the process of assessing his legacy. Granted, at this juncture, before more time has elapsed and historians take over, that is a daunting task.
At the top of any evaluation of Walker’s tenure is his role in enacting Act 10. This landmark legislation, curbing the collective bargaining power of public sector unions and requiring workers to start paying for pension and health care benefits, stands as a bulwark against out-of-control spending. (In sharp contrast to Wisconsin, Illinois is nearing a financial catastrophe because of its huge pension obligations.) For this, he deserves high marks.
Walker demonstrated cool resolve when the left reacted with apoplexy upon the law’s introduction. They fought it in the Capitol’s public spaces and courts — and by having Democratic legislators run away to Illinois to forestall action on the bill. They tried to have Walker recalled from office. All for naught.
The state has survived and thrived economically on account of Act 10.
Speaking of resolve, Walker elsewhere stuck to his principles by not accepting “free” money from the federal government to expand Medicaid for able-bodied workers up to 138 percent of the poverty line. States that have accepted the freebie haven’t necessarily lowered residents’ health care costs and will have to pick up the bill eventually, to the detriment of their taxpayers. Walker foresaw that.
Additionally worthy of note, Walker meant it when he said that Wisconsin is open for business. He helped to enact several pieces of pro-business legislation, including a substantial income tax credit for manufacturing companies and right-to-work law.
Yes, Walker gave away a lot to Foxconn, but he also got a lot in return — the prospect of up to 13,000 new jobs from Foxconn alone. And, it’s sent a message to other businesses. The entire corridor between Milwaukee and the state line and area around Madison are humming with economic activity. More people are moving into the state than out and recently Milwaukee landed on a list of best places for startups. Could you imagine that happening even a few years ago?
Finally, Walker deserves one and a half cheers for providing some tax relief to his residents. Wisconsin’s tax burden ranking relative to other states has improved a bit. On the other hand, it can be argued that he could have been much more aggressive than he was in this area (the top individual income tax rate is still an eye-popping 7.65 percent).
These successes aside, Walker made some critical mistakes. Shortly after getting re-elected governor, he decided to run for president. The very act of his running was tantamount to thumbing his nose at Wisconsin voters. Moreover, his trying to out-Trump Trump by describing the erection of a wall between the United States and Canada as a “legitimate issue” was beyond embarrassing (despite his subsequent denials about making the statement). His popularity plummeted after that ill-fated venture.
Walker also suffered by not calling out Trump on occasions (like Charlottesville, to pick one instance) when there was ample justification for doing so. Even as he demonstrated courage in seeing through the enactment of Act 10, Walker showed a lack of it when it came to Trump. This hurt him with suburban voters who have never been enamored of the president.
The fact that Wisconsin voted for Trump is no excuse for Walker’s reticence. Interestingly, in another state that Trump carried, Ohio, the Republican governor there, John Kasich, didn’t hesitate to criticize Trump when he felt it was warranted. Yet, it did not hurt the Republican candidate that followed Kasich (term-limited) as governor, Mike Devine. He got elected with relative ease.
People admire politicians who don’t always toe the party line.
Walker also never tackled head-on the transportation issues facing Wisconsin. Partisanship aside, people recognize the roads badly need fixing. Assembly Majority Leader Robin Vos wanted to address the problem by raising the gas tax, not a horrible idea. Tolling is also worthy of consideration. But Walker decided simply to delay the day of reckoning by taking on more debt instead.
Finally, agreeing to sign bills cutting back on incoming Governor Tony Evers’ authority (and that of the new attorney general) during the recent lame duck session of the legislature was poor form. Doing what he did as he was going out the door (and what he would have objected to while in office) looks petty and vindictive.
So all in all, I suspect that Walker’s legacy will be a mixed bag. Those of a liberal persuasion will slam him as they have all along, while others will be more kind.
Nonetheless, despite some missteps, on balance the state is in much better shape today than when Walker took office. We can only hope the same can be said when Tony Evers’ governorship has run its course.