We know that Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker is framing his bid to roll back public sector worker rights as a necessary measure of fiscal austerity. And we know that’s basically bogus. But how bogus? And how accurate are the dire warnings of fiscal crisis? And how standard are the tools Walker’s using to address it?
The answers in order: very, overblown, and unconventional.
“Unconventional or nuclear, depending on your point of view,” said Pat Kreitlow, a former Democratic senator in Wisconsin, who helped pass the state’s current budget.
There’s been a lot of confusion about what Walker’s doing — but he’s definitely not passing a budget. He’s pushing optional legislation in a vehicle that’s meant to tweak the budget in the event of a budget emergency. To the extent that there is an emergency, Walker essentially created it, giving him the chance to pass a bill that would permanently deny public workers collective bargaining rights, while he’s still riding the wave of his own post-election popularity.
Here’s how it came down.
In Wisconsin, budget season is two years long. The current budget window was opened on July 1, 2009, and will close on June 30 of this year. If for unexpected reason, the state finds itself faced with a severe deficit within a biennial window, the legislature must pass what’s known a “budget repair bill” — to close the gap with spending cuts or other emergency measures.
The state has not crossed that threshold.
The previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, passed a budget that left the state poised for a surplus this year. When Walker took office in January he chipped away at that surplus with three conservative tax expenditure bills, but not severely enough to trigger a budget repair bill. The current, small shortfall was “manufactured by Governor Walker’s own insistence on making the deficit worse with the bills he passed in January,” Kreitlow said. But Walker cited that shortfall to introduce a “budget repair bill” anyhow — a fully elective move that includes his plan to end collective bargaining rights for state employees.
“The trigger had not been reached prior to Governor Walker adding to the previous year’s deficit by passing bills that didn’t create a single job,” Kreitlow said.
Walker will soon have to introduce an actual budget, which will outline spending and revenue policy for the two years between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2013. And the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau — the official scorekeeper — does project that he’ll face a $3 billion shortfall. But Democrats faced a shortfall twice as large ahead of the previous budget cycle and managed to close the gap.
“The $3 billion is a projection based on requests and forecasts, but it’s the governor who has to do the hard work of putting together a plan,” Kreitow explained. “it is just practically half of the projected deficit that we closed in the last budget bill, which we did by making serious cuts and some very deliberate choices. That’s what we expect leaders to do.” In 2009, Wisconsin Dems did get just over a billion in help from the stimulus bill, but they made up the rest by giving state agencies less money than they asked for, and through furloughs and other real austerity measures.
“We know it could be closed again by making tough choices,” Kreitow said. “But not included in those tough choices would be stripping away labor rights that have allowed there to be labor peace in Wisconsin for over 50 years.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.