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Wisconsin Gov. Walker turns state into battleground for unions

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

In barely eight weeks, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a college dropout and Eagle Scout, has placed himself and his state in the center of a national storm.

Walker, a 43-year-old Republican, has divided his own state into partisan camps with his attempt to lower its budget deficit by raising benefit contributions by unionized employees and by erasing many rights under collective bargaining. He has made Wisconsin the focus of a debate over the influence unions should have when state treasuries are tapped out and taxpayers cry that they’ve had enough.

If there’s a lesson in what he’s doing, it’s that voters ought to take candidate positions seriously. Sometimes, politicians really do what they say they will.

His administration has been controversial from its start in January. He turned down an $810 million federal gift for a high-speed rail line because he said Wisconsin couldn’t afford its part of the costs. He partially privatized the state Department of Commerce, forcing some workers to reapply for their jobs.

And he made an overt appeal for Illinois businesses to cross the border after ruling Democrats here pushed through a 67 percent hike in the individual income tax rate and a 30 percent hike in the corporate tax rate. Walker’s pitch glossed over Wisconsin’s tax rates, which are higher than what most Illinoisans pay.

But it was his attack on the power of public-sector unions that brought demonstrators swarming to the state Capitol in Madison, with the crowd estimated at about 70,000 on Saturday. The protests continued for a sixth straight day Sunday and could get larger today because it’s President’s Day, a holiday for many union workers with direct interest in his plans. Counter demonstrators, many aligned with the Tea Party, also showed up to urge legislators not to waver on what they said was a popular cause.

Action on Walker’s plan has been stymied because Senate Democrats left the chamber, denying the majority GOP a quorum to do anything.

Labor leaders said they were blindsided by Walker’s proposal and that it amounts to union busting under the guise of fiscal responsibility. Supporters praise Walker for standing up to a powerful lobbying force.

His own campaign materials telegraphed his intention. “Don’t spend more than you have” was his self-stated rule No. 1, and he emphasized personal details suggesting a tightwad streak. He drives a 1998 Saturn with 100,000 miles in it, packs a brown bag lunch ever day and, during his eight years as chief executive of Milwaukee County, he gave back a portion of his salary.

A resident of Wauwatosa, a town west of Milwaukee, Walker attended Marquette University but dropped out, saying he took a job instead. He served more than eight years in the state Assembly and in 2002 was elected as a reformer to lead normally Democratic Milwaukee County.

But if people are surprised by Walker’s zeal, they haven’t been paying attention, said Michael Grebe, a Milwaukee business leader and a friend of the governor’s for 20 years. Grebe said Walker slashed payrolls and targeted unions for concessions as county executive. “He really does believe in skinny budgets and protecting the taxpayers. What he’s doing now is completely consistent with that,” Grebe said.

Nick Kaleba, spokesman for the Chicago Federation of Labor, said Walker has been unwilling to negotiate benefits with the unions. “This is really a unilateral move to hit the folks in their pocketbooks and also strip of them rights,” Kaleba said. He said the CFL is sending a bus of about 80 people to today’s protest and that Chicago-area sheetmetal workers also plan a solidarity showing.

They will encounter stubborn opposition. “The people who are not around the Capitol square are with us,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester and co-chair of the budget committee. “They may have a bunch around the square, but we’ve got the rest on our side.”

For his own part, Walker told Fox News on Sunday that he had no intention to water down his proposals. “We’re willing to take this as long as its takes because in the end we’re doing the right thing,” he said.

Walker said his demands are “modest” compared with labor concessions to private companies, and he said continued opposition will force deep layoffs in Wisconsin’s state and local government.

He’s chosen a high-stakes battle that politicians and public policy experts in Illinois are following closely. The shortfall he’s whittling at represents 12.8 percent of Wisconsin’s budget, said the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The nonpartisan group said Illinois’ current deficit is $15 billion, 45 percent of its budget.

Two questions linger: Can the mad protests of Madison spread to Illinois and is the fight making Walker a player in Republican presidential politics?

Democratic dominance in Illinois lessens the chance of a blowup with labor, some believe. But lawmakers have broached the idea of cutting benefits for current state employees, which has been off the table for previous discussions. One proposal would deny schoolteachers the right to strike.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said Wisconsin caused some of its own problems with a tax cut a few years ago. Walker, he said, is “demagoguing” the issue and playing to right-wing extremists.

Illinois state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from the Palatine-based 27th District, said Walker is showing courage because “public sector unions are disproportionately powerful in state capitals right now.” Murphy, who has advocated cuts in pension benefits for state workers, said Walker is raising his profile in the party.

“He may want to run his state for a while” and not make a bid in 2012, Murphy said. “But he’s earning a lot of goodwill,” he said.

Contributing: AP

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