With the Nov. 2 election of Scott Walker and solid majorities in both houses, Wisconsin Republicans have their first opportunity in a decade to distinctly redefine state policy. However, the looming $2.7 billion budget deficit, which the state constitution mandates be balanced, threatens to delay much of the party's pro-business agenda, including many of the tax cuts promised during the campaign.
Here are a few items the GOP can be expected to pursue in the first months following the new governor's inauguration.
1. Derailing the train
In addition to campaigning against using $810 million of federal funds to construct a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee, Walker said he would work to get the money reallocated to repair Wisconsin roads and bridges.
The first part of that pledge may come true, and outgoing Gov. Doyle has already halted construction of the line in apparent deference to Walker. But the Obama administration has signaled that Wisconsin can't use this money for roads instead, and it will now likely go to other states willing to build high-speed rail.
Walker is maneuvering to avoid the humiliating prospect of losing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. One possible outcome could be the federal government agreeing to pay the costs of operating the train. That way, Walker can renege on his promise while claiming he saved taxpayers money and kept jobs in the state. Otherwise, Walker will have to settle with pleasing the GOP base and drawing the ire of many moderates.
2. Fighting health care reform
One of the first actions Walker will take as governor is to authorize Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to join a multi-state legal challenge to the health care reform law passed in March. Wisconsin's participation in a suit that one federal judge has already ruled against is not crucial, but joining it will send a strong message of solidarity to the Republican base, to whom repeal of "Obamacare" is a top priority.
The challenge requires little political capital since all that is needed is Van Hollen's request and Walker's signature no legislative action is necessary. And, if successful, it will help Republicans nationally deliver on their promise to block changes in the health care arena.
3. Repealing 'combined reporting'
Put in place by Democrats last year, combined reporting is a tax policy meant to prevent large companies from dodging Wisconsin taxes by shifting their profits to subsidiaries in states without corporate taxes, such as Nevada or Delaware. Democrats claim the policy is the only way to make sure big corporate players pay their fair share, while Republicans say it deters companies from setting up in Wisconsin.
Rep. Robin Vos (R-Caledonia), the incoming co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, sees combined reporting as "punishing companies based on how they choose to operate," and hopes to pursue repeal. Walker supports that position.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), the JFC's outgoing co-chair, sees repeal of combined reporting as likely because it gives Republicans a chance to "pay back their corporate benefactors."
4. Cutting individual income taxes
Ideally, Republicans would repeal every tax hike the Democrats passed under Gov. Jim Doyle, including the 1% increase for couples with incomes over $225,000 or individuals with incomes over $300,000. In addition, Walker and Vos would like to reinstate the 60% tax exemption for capital gains, which the Democrats cut to 30% last year.
But ultimately, the Legislature's ability to cut taxes will depend on its willingness to cut spending. How deep the GOP will cut into health care and education to accommodate tax cuts will likely be a major dilemma. Already, the GOP is signaling that it may not deliver immediately, with Vos saying the tax-cut pledges were "not about the first budget, but the first term."
5. Approving concealed carry
Making Wisconsin the 49th state that allows citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed firearms should be a slam-dunk. In recent years, concealed carry legislation has been blocked only by Gov. Doyle's veto. GOP leaders say they plan to push the issue at the beginning of the next legislative session.
Although some commentators say concealed carry is a distraction from the economic issues the GOP was elected to tackle, it's a policy the party has been promising its base for years and cannot afford to punt on.
The question that remains is how expansive the concealed carry legislation will be. The bill that Doyle vetoed would have allowed those who go through gun-safety training to get permits. In light of their large majorities, however, Republicans may propose a more ambitious alternative that would make concealed carry a right with few restrictions.
6. Requiring voter ID
Mandating that voters show photo identification at the polls has been on the GOP wish list for years. Republicans in other states have implemented the policy, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court despite claims by Democrats that the law places an unfair burden on those least likely to have driver's licenses, especially low-income voters in urban areas (read: Democrats).
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says he plans to introduce a voter ID bill at the beginning of the session. Since the law requires little if any spending, and polls show it enjoys broad public support, passing it should be a breeze. And while Democrats will grumble about disenfranchising voters, the move will earn GOP legislators kudos from their conservative base, which the talk-radio circuit has whipped into a frenzy of fear about inner-city voter fraud.
7. Cutting state employee benefits
"Do you know that state workers don't pay anything toward their retirement?" asked Walker in a campaign ad. "Now people outside of government they contribute to their retirement. So I think it's only fair that state workers do too."
Public workers are a favorite target of Republicans, and nothing offers a better excuse for cutting into civil servants' benefits than a budget deficit. Making the change for the state's 33,000 non-unionized workers may be relatively easy a GOP-led attempt to do so in 2005 was stopped only by Doyle's veto.
But negotiating benefit reductions with the unions that represent the other 25,000 state employees will be a much tougher task. Walker's attempt to get a head start on this failed when Doyle denied his request to leave negotiation of already-overdue union contracts for the new administration. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin State Employees Union is gearing up for a fight.
8. Cutting BadgerCare
To close the huge budget gap, the new Legislature will inevitably make cuts to the state's largest programs, including its public health care system, BadgerCare. Although Walker emphasized his support of BadgerCare during the general election campaign, during the primary he said he would seek cuts, including to a newly developed program for low-income childless adults.
Walker, who as a legislator in the 1990s voted to create BadgerCare, now claims it is plagued by "fraud and abuse." Expect Democrats to fight ferociously, but Republicans seeking to deliver on their tax promises have few other options, especially since Vos hopes to avoid steep cuts to education, the state's other big financial obligation.