David Michael Miller
To understand Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed state budget just look up. Literally.
The 2017-2018 budget, introduced last week, is widely regarded as a reelection document, but it contains some things that look almost Democratic, including a significant increase in spending on education.
And, in contrast to his previous budgets, there isn’t much red meat for the far right on the menu this time. In fact, instead of completely tearing apart the Department of Natural Resources, as some legislators had proposed, the governor merely eliminated the department’s magazine. That’s a bad idea, but it’s not exactly a hunk of prime rib. It’s more like a smear of steak tartare on a cracker.
In fact, demurring on the request to split the DNR’s work into five separate agencies is about the only thing in the governor’s budget that doesn’t quite fit the pattern.
And the pattern is to cater to northern Wisconsin. His budget contains an increase in funding for public schools with special attention paid to rural districts with high transportation costs, a new initiative for rural broadband, and more funding for local roads.
In addition to what is in the budget, what is decidedly not there is also notable. The governor is maintaining his staunch opposition to any increase in the gas tax, a stand that is likely to be more popular in sparsely populated parts of the state where longer drives are just part of daily life.
This all makes sense if you look at the governor’s approval numbers, which have been hanging around the low 40s for almost two years. But Walker remains popular in the Milwaukee suburbs, while his support has fallen off a cliff in the northern and western parts of the state. So, his budget seems targeted at shoring up his support there in preparation for his run for a third term next year.
More curious is the reaction from GOP legislative leaders. The reception there to Walker’s budget has been chilly. You might think that legislators of his own party would be eager to help him pass a budget that would bolster his chances for reelection.
What’s going on? Some of it is, no doubt, honest disagreement over direction. Walker is, for all his hard-right policy stances, a practical politician. So, when his political instincts tell him it’s time to spend some money on education, he does it. But a substantial part of the Republican caucuses is made up of true hard-right ideologues, who are always against more spending, even on kids and even when it might benefit their own governor.
Then there’s just natural tension that pops up over time between executive and legislative branches even when both are held by the same party. You might want to ask Jim Doyle how that works.
Finally, if Walker hasn’t exactly burned bridges with legislative leaders, he has let them deteriorate. That’s an apt analogy for his transportation budget, where Walker has again refused to do anything to fix the long-term revenue gap that is a growing concern for most Republican leaders as well as minority Democrats.
With Walker refusing to back a gas tax increase, he has hemmed in leaders like Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), who might support a significant increase if Walker wasn’t promising a veto. Vos’ and Nygren’s frustration is palpable. When legislators are put into a corner on one issue they tend to be uncooperative every chance they get.
So, the governor’s budget is a smart political document that goes to rebuilding the weakest part of his political armor. But it’s still an open question how much of that armor his own party will let him put on.