When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushes a tax cut and changes to education funding next year, he’ll make the pitch to friends: Fellow Republicans will be controlling the legislature.
Walker, 45, has two years to act before voters can reshape government again in a state famous for political volatility. Five months ago, residents made him endure a recall vote after he pushed limits on unions. On Nov. 6, they elected to the U.S. Senate Tammy Baldwin, a Democratic representative with a 100 percent American Civil Liberties Union approval rating.
“I’m not naive enough to think that everyone in this state believes in everything that we’re doing,” Walker told a gathering of executives Nov. 28 in Madison, the capital.
Still, interest groups expect his government to approve abortion restrictions, eliminate same-day voter registration and end workplaces closed to nonunion employees. Walker is touring the state to talk with voters about the road ahead.
Wisconsin government mirrors divisions in U.S. capitals. One-party rule is on the rise after the Nov. 6 elections, with 37 states to be controlled solely by Republicans or Democrats when legislative sessions convene next year.
Single-party dominance carries opportunities and risks when many governors face re-election in 2014.
“People expect problems to be solved, and they don’t care for ideological combat,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “Voters are unhappy with government in general and they expect results.”
With a two-year window for each party to get what it wants, legislative agendas are taking shape, including higher taxes on the wealthy in Minnesota and requiring publicly traded companies in Illinois to reveal how much they pay in income taxes. Both states are dominated by Democrats. Abortion restrictions may be ahead in Republican Ohio and Wisconsin --which supported Democratic President Barack Obama’s re-election by 200,000 votes.
Wisconsin Right to Life, which has long supported Walker, wants a ban on taxpayer-funded abortions for state employees as well as a law requiring a woman seeking the procedure to view an ultrasound of her fetus.
“The silver lining in the November 6 elections is that Wisconsin has a right-to-life Governor, Scott Walker, and strong right-to-life majorities in both houses of the legislature!” Barbara Lyons, the group’s director, wrote in a Nov. 15 newsletter.
In Ohio, one of the first bills the legislature considered in the lame-duck session after last month’s elections was to set priorities for public money for family-planning services. A House committee made Planned Parenthood last in line.
The bill passed Nov. 15 along party lines, with Democrats accusing Republicans of continuing a “war on women” to defund Planned Parenthood because it performs abortions.
In Minnesota, where Democrats took control of the legislature, Democratic Governor Mark Dayton said Nov. 6 he will push for “a fairer tax system where the richest Minnesotans pay more.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Michigan are discussing a so-called right-to-work proposal to end closed union workplaces similar to one that passed in Indiana in February.
The one-sided nature of legislatures is the product of majority parties using their advantage after the 2010 elections to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries, said Paul Beck, a political-science professor at Ohio State University.
“Majorities and sometimes supermajorities can do what they wish, without anyone able to stop them,” Beck said. “The dominant party knows that just because they can do something, they go ahead and do it.”
The number of states where Democrats and Republicans shared control peaked at 31 in 1988 and 1996, according to the NCSL. Divided governments have dropped significantly since 2004.
During the next two years Republicans will dominate 24 states while Democrats will control at least 13, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ruling parties act with urgency because they know partisan control doesn’t last forever.
Walker, elected in 2010, was forced into a recall election after using Republican majorities in 2011 to enact collective-bargaining curbs on most public employees.
Ouster campaigns forced three Republican senators from office, tipping control of that chamber to the Democrats in June. While Walker’s party will return to dominance next month, the state’s volatility was underscored Nov. 6.
“It’s a mixed message,” said Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette Law School Poll. “The statewide results are very sobering to any party that thinks it has fundamentally shifted the state politically.”
Walker began traveling the state Nov. 27 as part of a “Talk with Walker” tour to discuss next year’s budget. The governor has sketched out priorities in general terms, building his agenda around job creation, workforce development, education changes and infrastructure development. He has talked about tax cuts, though he hasn’t been specific about which levies would be reduced or by how much.
“Less time me talking, and more time you talking,” Walker told 20 nonunion employees at a ship-building factory in Green Bay. The governor said he will hold sessions across the state during the next two months.
When Walker ran for election in 2010, he didn’t mention collective-bargaining curbs. He unveiled them in February 2011, six weeks after taking office. The unexpected introduction provoked weeks of protests.
“Not that everything’s perfect, but the good news is that, since June, things have quieted down in this state,” Walker said in his Madison speech last week.
The claim of a new era of good feeling is a debatable point for some Democrats. Six months after the recall election, protesters still gather daily in the Capitol, singing, demanding the removal of Walker and prompting objections from voters who are tired of the fighting.
“If someone’s voted in and he’s been recalled and is voted back in, give it up,” said Dan Hahn, 64, a retired truck driver from Port Washington who confronted the protesters last week. “Give it up.”
Still, Senator Chris Larson, who leads the chamber’s Democratic minority, wonders how much listening Walker is actually doing.
“The tone is really set by the executive,” Larson said. “This governor in particular has ruled on a divide-and-conquer strategy, moving toward an ideology instead of trying to get stuff done.”
When Walker ran for election in 2010, he pledged to create 250,000 private jobs by the end of 2014, the close of his four-year term. About 25,000 jobs have been added since he took office in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With 31 governors, including Walker, up for re-election in 2014, the pressure will mount on one-party governments to get beyond satisfying their political bases and producing results for voters who don’t care about partisanship, Franklin said.
“In this situation, they can’t blame the other party if something doesn’t get done,” Franklin said.