Walker's Budget Vetoes: Caving in or Offering Leadership?

By MIKE FORD | July 1, 2013

After a first read of Gov. Scott Walker’s recent vetoes, I am reminded of the scene in "Gladiator" in which Joaquin Phoenix takes stock of the Coliseum’s crowd and, eventually, gives into public sentiment and lets Russell Crowe live. Phoenix’s character would soon regret his decision, but really he had no choice.

Of course the items vetoed by Governor Walker in the 2013-2015 budget are not a matter of life and death.  Wisconsin will survive despite the veto of the “Report Requirement Related to Overweight Permits for Raw Forest Products” (Veto 25).  Still the more prominent items vetoed by Walker are largely ones where there was pushback from the public.

Consider two of Walker’s education vetoes.  The Governor vetoed proposed new restrictions on the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) regarding the timing and format of the release of data pertaining to the Milwaukee school voucher program, and a provision allowing students outside of Milwaukee to use vouchers without counting against the new program’s enrollment cap.  Both proposals were criticized by DPI Superintendent Tony Evers and media outlets, and both were mothballed.

The Governor also vetoed, for the second time in his tenure, a provision allowing the use of commercial bail bonds in Wisconsin.  As Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Kremers put it in a June 15th Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed, the measure faced “nearly universal criticism from judges, district attorneys, defense attorneys, chiefs of police, the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriff's Association, clerks of court, county boards, mayors, county executives and many others.”

Perhaps nothing in the budget received more negative attention than the proposal to remove the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. This idea was panned by conservatives and liberals alike, and was vetoed.  

There are a few ways to interpret Walker’s vetoes. Perhaps he was just being parochial and asserting his executive authority. None of the four I’ve noted were in Walker’s original budget, all were added at a later date by the Joint Committee on Finance.  But I do not think this is about a turf war.  Many of things signed into law, most notably the statewide school voucher compromise, were not in the executive budget.  If the Governor simply wanted to flex his muscle there is plenty more he would have vetoed.

Maybe the Governor is just weak. After all there is evidencesupporting the use of commercial bail bondsevidence that the school voucher changes would not limit transparency, and vigorous debate on the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism issue.  But it is hard for me to buy the weak Governor narrative.  Remember Act 10? 

To understand the Governor’s true motivation look no further than the kringle, our state’s new official pastry.  There is no logical reason to include the new kringle designation in a budget, but as I learned over ten years ago when I first came to this state, Wisconsinites like kringle.  They also like the concept of transparency, dislike loopholes, and abhor the idea of bounty hunters.                   

The Governor’s motivation, in my opinion, was to represent the views of the people of Wisconsin.  Not a specific district, not a special interest, but the state as a whole.  In other words, the Governor was doing his job, balancing evidence, interests, and the wishes of the electorate.  It is a path every Governor must navigate. Some do it well and some do not. 

So how did Walker do?  Ask me in 2016.  Though the stakes were higher in the ancient Rome presented in Gladiator, the lesson is the same; when a leader fails to respect the wishes of those he leads, he will not be a leader for long.