The Walker Way

It’s a shock for some: He means what he says, and he does what he promises

by Richard Esenberg

Last November, Wisconsin voters made Scott Walker their governor. They are now getting to know him.

We in Milwaukee know Walker well and have come to understand how he responds to crisis. We know how he answers those who say that fundamental change is too disruptive and thus impossible.

The story is familiar. Milwaukee County’s elected officials had pillaged the overburdened taxpayers of a relatively poor county.

Whether by mendacity, gross negligence or misfortune met with fecklessness, county government had — on many occasions — promised its employees medical and pension benefits that it could not hope to afford.

County pashas can often look forward to an early retirement spent in a luxury that belies their former status as one functionary among many in the gray lassitude that marks the Milwaukee County courthouse. Secretaries have — literally — become millionaires.

In the words of one prominent county politician, the “Milwaukee County family” (by which she meant its public employees) had taken care of each other — at the expense of its shirttail relations, i.e., the actual citizens whom the “family” came to see as its bank.

Many things happened in response. One was that Milwaukee voters elected Walker as their county executive. For those of you outstate, a Republican carrying Milwaukee County is a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu being elected the mayor of Tehran.

Although he promised change to a heavily taxed electorate, he was advised to be “responsible.” To maintain his precarious hold on office, he was told to take the Milwaukee County kleptocracy as he found it.

Be an adult and tell the voters that what was done is done. However high they may already be, taxes and spending must continue to rise.

He said “no.” It turned out that when Walker said he wouldn’t raise taxes, he meant it. Oh, to be sure, an often hostile County Board overrode some vetoes, and his term was not without some tax and spending increases, but the trend line became relatively flat.

To evoke Grover Norquist, the beast was not starved, but it was placed on a rather stringent diet. And the voters of Tehran returned Netanyahu to office. Twice.
More important, Milwaukee did not become Detroit. It is not yet home to no one but government supplicants and their masters, not yet a hollowed-out shell lacking economic vibrancy and a privately employed middle class. Perhaps Walker was fighting a rearguard action now to be abandoned, but he fought it.

Wisconsin is a fine state, but its government, like those of so many other fine states, is a mess. Although our constitution mandates a balanced budget, the state actually runs a “structural deficit” of billions of dollars accomplished through a combination of fiscal imprudence and accounting tricks.

While the economic downturn did not cause this state of affairs, it does make it increasingly difficult to continue. At some point we must decide what level of taxation and spending we can afford.

Walker’s budget repair bill suggests what is to come. It challenges the once controversial but now supposedly “mature” proposition that public employees ought to collectively bargain with politicians who often owe their positions to their unionized “adversaries.”

You will find almost no manager in the private sector who wants anything to do with unions. That’s not surprising. The economic theory behind collective bargaining is to grant labor something akin to oligopolistic power. Yet Democrats — who are, after all, elected to represent the government’s “management” — seem to want that 800-pound gorilla staring at them from across the table.

It seems passing strange, but ought not to surprise. Public employee unions keep politicians in business. In supporting them, Democrats are simply doing the honorable thing — they are, for better or worse, staying “bought.”

However, in combining decisionmakers who are indebted to the union with collective-bargaining protections, we’ve created a recipe for sweetheart deals. Outsized and unsustainable benefit and retirement packages — not only in Wisconsin but across the country — prove the pudding.

What Walker has done is to go after, as the left likes to say, the “root cause.” He has declined to simply patch things up so the state can limp to the next biennium.

This is change we can believe in. We live in a high-tax state with, depending on the measure, average- to somewhat-below-average income. We find ourselves in a world in which neither businesses nor individuals are the captives of any particular state (or, quite often, of any nation). It is a world in which, quite frankly, other states do more with less.

Government spending that does not create value greater than the taxes it consumes is not only undesirable, it is harmful. This may be painful to hear, but it is no less true for that.

The Scott Walker that we came to know in Milwaukee understands that. The rest of the state is finding out.

Richard Esenberg is a visiting professor of law at Marquette University.
He blogs at