Walker's first 100 days full of political victories and serious missteps

2011-04-12T10:30:00Z 2011-07-05T18:09:58Z Walker's first 100 days full of political victories and serious misstepsCLAY BARBOUR | cbarbour@madison.com | 608-252-6129 madison.com

It started with a bang, ran into a giant snag and now faces a series of question marks; say what you will about Gov. Scott Walker's brief tenure as governor, it has been anything but dull.

Tuesday marks the first 100 days of the Walker administration, a period governors often use to gauge the progress of their agenda. 

By most accounts, the report card on Wisconsin's 45th governor is a mixed bag, filled with some impressive successes and a few tactical missteps. 

Walker won easy victories in the areas of tax reform and economic development. But his collective bargaining reforms may have cost him precious political capital as the Legislature prepares to take up his first budget.

Meanwhile, the governor's once moribund opposition seems to have gotten legs and now is targeting Republican lawmakers — who control both houses — in an effort to cripple the rest of his term. 

"Walker has pushed through an unprecedented amount of legislation," said Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. "But the way he has gone about it has divided the state in ways I've never seen before. And I am just not sure how we get back from where we are now." 

Smooth start

Walker's term began even before the administration of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle officially ended. Within a week of winning the election, Walker managed to keep one of his main campaign promises, killing the $810 million Madison-to-Milwaukee passenger rail project.

On his first official day in office, the new governor called the Legislature into special session and introduced eight bills meant to spark the state's economic recovery. One month later, a bipartisan group of lawmakers had easily passed all of the proposals. 

Those bills make it harder to sue companies and medical providers, provided tax breaks for businesses that relocate to Wisconsin, set aside more money for economic development and remove the state income tax on health savings accounts.

Walker even managed to shutter the Department of Commerce and replace it with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a new public-private agency that will market the state to outside companies. 

"In terms of economic development, he has done about as much as anyone could have expected," said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville. "But his pushing for the collective bargaining bill just knocked the state off kilter."

The cost of victory

The rest of the story is well known. Walker introduced a ninth bill, his budget repair measure. The bill attempted to close the $137 million gap in the current budget.

But the proposal contained several other measures, including legislation that would severely curb collective bargaining for public employees. The proposal led to a month-long protest at the state Capitol, prompted 14 Democratic senators to flee the state to stall its passage and energized Walker's opposition to such a degree that it turned the recent Supreme Court election on its ear.

Before the Capitol standoff, most experts gave challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg no chance to unseat incumbent Justice David Prosser. But it took a cache of previously unreported votes last week to give Prosser a slim, albeit unofficial, lead.

The race, which attracted almost 1.5 million voters, was seen by many as a referendum on Walker's collective bargaining bill.

"Things were running along smoothly for about six weeks and then (Walker) took a hard turn to the right and became this incredibly divisive figure," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. "The honeymoon ended quickly, but he has no one to blame but himself."

Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said the division was to be expected. The 40-year veteran of the state Legislature said Walker is the first governor in more than a decade to make hard budget cuts.

"We have dodged that bullet for years because of gutless politicians in the Legislature and the governor's office who did not want to make the tough choices," Ellis said. "Whether you like it or not, Walker is bringing fiscal honesty to the state. And that will, by its nature, create strife."

Said Ellis, "Somebody's ox is going to be gored and they will not like it."

The collective bargaining measure is currently stuck in the courts. If it emerges intact, it would increase public employee payments for insurance and pensions. Walker has argued the savings to school districts and local governments would allow them to make up for the cuts imposed by his upcoming budget — a contention the League of Wisconsin Municipalities recently questioned.

No regrets

Larry Sabato, a national political expert and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Walker's first 100 days have been unlike any governor he has seen before: the aggressive legislation, the mass reactions, the national exposure. 

"He could not have expected this level of opposition," Sabato said. "I'm sure he hopes his next 100 days are less eventful." 

But the governor said Monday that he is proud of his first 100 days. He does not regret any of the moves he has made, despite the controversy. The governor has long said that too much is made of the crowds that have protested his bill. He contends that most people in the state are behind him. 

Walker said the only thing he would have done differently during his first 100 days was to push the Senate to strip the fiscal components from his bill and pass it sooner.

"If I had a crystal ball, I would have made the case to ... act quicker," he said.

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