More furlough days for state workers, fewer people on BadgerCare, lower taxes for corporations, employee contributions to state pensions and a challenge to federal health care reform are all likely to be top items on the state agenda in the wake of a Republican wave that swept Democrats entirely out of power in Wisconsin state government.
Much of Tuesday night's coverage of the elections focused on Republican Scott Walker's defeat of Democrat Tom Barrett to succeed Jim Doyle as governor, but Republicans also made huge gains in the state Assembly and Senate, giving them firm control of both houses and therefore a friendly audience for Walker's agenda.
In the Senate, where Republicans needed to gain two seats to claim the majority, they won four, which will give them a 19-14 majority. In the Assembly, Republicans will have at least a 59-38 majority, with one race still too close to call and another won by an independent. Among the legislative casualties on the Democratic side were major players such as Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan of Janesville, Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker of Wausau, and majority caucus chair Sen. John Lehman of Racine.
"You have given us a mandate for true reform," Walker told a cheering crowd in Pewaukee during his acceptance speech Tuesday night, adding that "people across the state are scared ... I'm here to tell you, help is on the way."
With Democratic leaders swept out of the way, Republicans will begin as early as Monday to discuss new legislative leaders and key committee appointments. The Republican leadership will likely be announced Monday or soon after, with committee positions typically finalized in December before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
The influence of Madison representatives will drop dramatically when that happens.
The Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee, which controls the purse strings to many government departments and programs, is now chaired by two local Democrats, Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison and Sen. Mark Miller of Monona.
The power shift means these two will lose their chairmanships, as will the other Democratic chairs of Assembly and Senate committees. Odds are, insiders speculate, that Rep. Robin Vos of Burlington, Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald of Horicon and his brother Sen. Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau each have a shot at the committee co-chairs.
Walker has often said one of his first acts as governor will be to grant Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen -- who was re-elected easily Tuesday -- the ability to join a contingent of nearly 20 states that is suing the federal government over the health care reform act.
The suit is based on the argument that a federal law requiring individuals to have health insurance violates the Constitution.
Even if they join the suit, however, Walker and the Republican Legislature must still move forward to provide a blueprint to the federal government for the state's "health care exchange" by January 2013. The exchange is essentially a one-stop shop where residents can buy health insurance, choosing among many different plans. Failure to establish the exchange would mean the federal government would step in to set one up. By law, states must have one in place by 2014.
"My bet is Walker will not want Obama's people coming in to do this for him," said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a progressive advocacy group that has pushed hard for health care reform. "At least that provides for some give-and-take for working with Democrats."
By most accounts, the state's escalating structural budget deficit, now up around $3 billion, is the most urgent and pressing matter that Walker and the Republicans will have to tackle. And if Walker stays true to his campaign promises, that means drastic spending cuts.
One major item likely to come under scrutiny is the state's popular health insurance program for the poor known as BadgerCare. Walker said often during the earlier part of his campaign that he wanted to limit the amount of time people could spend on BadgerCare, but backed off that stance in recent weeks, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, to say he wanted to restrict the eligibility for the program, which now serves more than 750,000 state residents.
Reduced spending on state employees is another likely outcome of Tuesday's elections. Walker will likely propose more unpaid days off for state employees than Doyle did when he implemented 16 furlough days in the 2009-2011 budget. Walker has also said he would not fill 4,000 of the state's 4,700 job openings.
Even further, Walker has said during the campaign that public employees should begin contributing to their own pensions. Currently, governments cover the full pension contributions for about 99 percent of public employees in the state, according to Department of Employee Trust Funds spokesman Matt Stohr. At one point in the campaign, Walker said employee contributions would save the state some $180 million, but the head of the state employees union told the Associated Press that such a change would have to come through negotiation and could be declared "by fiat."
It's less clear what a Walker administration will mean for state funding for the University of Wisconsin, but with Democrats out of power, education committee chairs will again be Republican and that means that Republican Rep. Steve Nass of Whitewater, a staunch and vocal critic of the university system, could again be the chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee. His spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, on Tuesday said Nass would be interested in reclaiming that role.
If he did, he would push for capping college tuition increases and reducing wages and benefits for teachers, professors and administrators.
"A lot of people get paid big bucks, and they are never in the classrooms," Mikalsen said. "Unfortunately, fee increases go to paying for these people. That's why middle-class families are being squeezed out of the university system."
Making Walker's task to plug the state's $3 billion budget deficit more difficult is the fact that he pledged not to raise taxes and fees. In fact, he has said he will push to decrease taxes on corporations and the state's wealthiest residents, arguing that it will boost the economy and so ultimately generate more tax revenue.
Joe Heim, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor, predicted that with many lawmakers up for re-election in just two years, moderate Democrats will go along with Walker's plans, possibly out of fear they will meet the same fate as Democrats did in Tuesday's midterm elections.
"Walker will be walking into a climate that is more conducive to his policies," Heim said, noting that a split legislature or a Democratically controlled Assembly or Senate would make for a tougher sell.
How successful Walker and the Republicans are at dealing with the budget will likely determine how voters respond to the party in the 2012 elections, and the fact that they have a free hand also brings some risk, according to Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor.
"With complete control you can't blame the other party if you can't fix the problems," he said.
And fixing the problems won't be easy.
Trying to look on the bright side, Rep. Joe Parisi said after the polls closed Tuesday that it takes time to jump-start a sluggish economy.
"People were upset with Washington and Wisconsin got caught up in the wave," said Parisi, D-Madison, who was re-elected to his Assembly seat Tuesday. "You can't dig yourself out of a hole like we were handed overnight."
For the next two years, it will be the Republicans' turn to try.