Dec 23, 2011 8:45 PM GMT
(Madison, WI) – In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker(R) served as the embodiment of the state by state battle to balance budgets and the best symbol of the struggle between the two political parties about how best to meet those fiscal challenges. His first year will extend well into his second year, quite likely culminating in a recall election to remove him from office.
He has dominated the political debate on both sides. Defining the issues. He is cited by both Democrats and Republicans as the best of example of what is wrong, or what is right with a conservative approach to government. Although they will never admit it, many Democratic governors are different from Walker only in a matter of degrees.
Nearly every governor, regardless of party, began the year saying the current path of expensive pension and benefit packages for public employees is unsustainable. The way the issue exploded in Wisconsin is as much a function of the legal and legislative tools at Walker’s disposal as it is about the specific route he chose to take.
This is why Governors Journal has selected Scott Walker as the 2011 Governor of the Year.
It is not accurate to say Scott Walker launched an unannounced attack on public employees. For decades, state and local government leaders have complained about government employee unions: Collective bargaining, growing benefit packages, under-funded pension systems and binding arbitration. The warning siren had howled.
As Idaho Governor Butch Otter(R) observed in one interview this year, the changes that occurred in 2011 could not have happened in the absence of the national economic collapse. In politics, things change when a crisis necessitates change.
That was the case this year in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Years of complaining about the problem led to action in state after state. Walker was faced with a larger crisis in Wisconsin, in large part, because the unions fighting his proposal to curtail collective bargaining rights had the help of a small group of Senate Democrats who fled the state, preventing a vote, for several weeks, as pro-union forces took over the Capitol in support.
Eventually Walker prevailed. In an ironic twist, the union organized Madison melodrama may have helped efforts to curtail union rights and benefit packages in other states, where reforms slipped in under the radar.
The union cause had one victory this year when voters over turned Walker style reforms in Ohio. Just a few weeks later, public employees suffered another defeat in Rhode Island, where a heavily Democratic legislature, working with Governor Lincoln Chafee(I), enacted what is considered the most sweeping pension reform in the country.
Now on to 2012. Walker is facing a well organized and well funded movement to recall him from office. Democrats and unions have teamed up and seem well on their way to gathering the signatures they need(540,000) to force an election.
Walker is raising money himself and has begun a campaign to defend his record and hold onto his office through 2014. Next to the presidential race, if the recall election takes place, it may be the biggest political story in the country in the coming year.
But consider this. Even if Walker is removed from office, he still wins the debate. Any setback will be temporary. Pension reforms are a reality. California is next.
Walker, heralded as a “hero” of the conservative cause, will be in Washington in two months to address the American Conservative Union. If he comes out on top, in a special election, he is a right wing political star. If he loses, he is a political martyr, but still a star. What Walker represents – the idea behind his policies – cannot be killed even if he is temporarily removed from office.