Since March 11, 2011, Chris Reeder and a dedicated group of protesters have been coming to the Capitol Rotunda each day at noon, to sing songs of protest against Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican regime.
As of last Friday, that was 367 consecutive weekdays of protest singing. "It grew out of the big occupation last March," Reeder explains after a sing-along last week. "It was a way to maintain a peaceful presence. We didn't expect it to be going on 14 months later."
The singing sessions are a way "to make sure the legislature knows we're still here," he says.
What could be the culmination of all those afternoons of singing is nearing: Scott Walker's recall election June 5. The polls show Walker has a slight lead over his opponent, Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. But the electorate is more or less evenly divided, and the election will likely be a nail-biter.
For Reeder, the election isn't just about public workers' union rights - the issue that kicked off the anti-Walker protests last year. It's also about GOP cuts to education, the loosening of environmental regulations, and continued threats to the social safety net. "I'm not a radical leftist," he says. "I just want that sensible, moderate state that was the Wisconsin I moved to. I want fair politics."
Conservatives have a much different view. In their minds, government can be a drag on business, siphoning money away from hard-working families toward unions and special interest groups. Conservatives believe free-market approaches to education and health care will produce superior results.
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) says the election will determine whether Wisconsin wants to be an American free-market state or a failed, European-style socialist one. "Europe is about to crater out, because nobody can ever say no and stay elected. Europe is collapsing," he says. "If Scott Walker loses for passing a budget with a 1% increase, it bodes badly for America."
It is a clash of completely different world views, ones that at times seem based on different sets of facts. Much more than a referendum on Scott Walker, the recall is a vote on what kind of state residents want. What follows is an examination of the state they'll likely get if Walker wins or Barrett wins.
The intense political battle erupted last winter when Walker proposed stripping public-sector workers of most of their rights to collectively bargain - a battle he eventually won.
Many on the left fear that if Walker survives the recall, he'll go one step further and make Wisconsin a "right to work" state, which would prohibit compulsory membership in workplace unions. Numerous calls and emails to Walker's campaign headquarters went unreturned, but other news outlets have quoted the governor saying he won't push for right-to-work legislation. Still, there is some basis to believe he would.
Two weeks ago, filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein released a video clip from his forthcoming film, As Goes Janesville, chronicling a conversation Walker had in January 2011 with billionaire donor Diane Hendricks. Hendricks asked the governor if there was any chance he could make the state right-to-work. Walker explained that he planned to first go after public unions with a "divide and conquer" strategy.
And last week, state Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), reportedly told an audience in Waukesha County that Republicans have right-to-work legislation "ready to go."
William Powell Jones, an associate professor of labor history at UW-Madison, says he takes Walker at his word that he won't push for right-to-work. But, he adds, "It's pretty safe to say if he were to survive the recall, there'd be a push for something along those lines in the legislature."
While Barrett might be able to restore collective bargaining rights for state workers, a Walker victory would make it increasingly difficult for future governors to do so, Jones says. "That damage is done. If he survives the recall it will continue."
In a phone interview, Barrett says he would support restoring collective bargaining rights for public workers. "It's fair. The way [Walker] did it was divisive," he says. "It was clear this was just the first step toward getting a right-to-work state."
But Jones says the bigger repercussions of the election will be national. Unions have been under attack since the 1970s, a trend that has coincided with the decline of the middle class and working-class wages.
"Unfair labor practices are fairly widespread and minimally penalized, but that's something the governor and state legislature have very little impact on," he says. President Obama has made efforts to enforce labor laws, but a Walker victory would ramp up attacks on unions nationally, Jones predicts.
"If Walker were to win the recall it would make it very difficult for the Obama administration to enforce those rights," he says. "We'd see a further gutting of labor law. There's a lot at stake."
Walker called for the end of public-sector bargaining rights as a way to balance the budget and reduce the cost of government. But he also slashed spending throughout state government in order to close a $3.6 billion deficit.
The next two-year budget, covering July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2015, might also be a tough one to balance. In February, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated that the state would face a $143 million budget hole at the end of the current budget, in part because of an expected $273 million drop in tax revenues.
Earlier this month, however, the state Department of Administration predicted the state would finish the budget with a $154 million surplus, due to higher estimates for income, sales and corporate taxes. Bob Lang, director of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, says he hasn't closely examined the DOA's figures but has no reason to doubt them.
Still, all of these numbers are just predictions. Andrew Reschovsky, a professor of applied economics and government affairs at the UW's La Follette School of Public Affairs, says the economy is not improving as fast as most would like.
"We know revenues will continue to grow, but at a really quite slow rate compared to the last couple of decades," he says. At the same time, the population continues to age, which will likely mean the government's health care costs will also increase.
So a deficit is a very real possibility. Walker's approach, Reschovsky says, has been consistent: cut spending; cut taxes or keep them level.
If there is a deficit under Walker, Reschovsky says, "The cuts are likely to come in education, K-12. That's where 40% of [the state budget] goes. That's likely the place you're going to look for money…. Medicaid is another big area."
Walker likes to paint Barrett as a tax-happy liberal. But other than revisiting the tax changes Walker has made, the mayor says, "I'm not looking to raise taxes."
Rather, Barrett says he would focus on creating jobs as a way of increasing state revenue. Walker, he says, has hurt job growth, rejecting $810 million in federal funds to build a high-speed rail system, toughening regulations on wind farms and rejecting a bill to provide venture capital funding.
"This all goes back to his failure to focus on job creation," Barrett says. "Because he failed to focus on jobs, we lost a lot of income tax revenue, sales tax revenue and property tax."
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Job creation has become the central issue of the recall campaign, one that has been confused by the statistical methods government agencies use to calculate employment levels.
During the 2010 campaign, Walker pledged to create 250,000 jobs if elected. At the time, that promise was actually a pretty safe bet. In a normal recovery from a recession, Wisconsin would have expected to create about 250,000 jobs over Walker's term.
Unfortunately for Walker and Wisconsin, this has been a "jobless" recovery.
Last week, Walker took the unprecedented step of releasing to the public 2011 job survey results from the state's Department of Workforce Development at the same time his administration reported them to the federal government. If he hadn't done this, the data would not have been available until the end of June, after the election. He also immediately released a campaign ad using the numbers.
The data show that Wisconsin added 23,300 jobs last year. Previous estimates had the state losing 33,900 jobs in 2011 - the biggest drop in the country.
"The results are amazing," Walker said on Vicki McKenna's WIBA radio show last week. "We saw the creation of over 23,000 new jobs in Wisconsin. That is good news, that's moving Wisconsin forward."
Laura Dresser, associate director at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a UW-affiliated think tank, says Walker's data are valid, but nothing to brag about.
If the state had been growing at the tepid rate as the rest of the country, Wisconsin would have gained about 50,000 jobs last year, she says.
"The rate of national growth is roughly twice that of Wisconsin," Dresser says.
Muddying the picture is that also last week, the state released its job figures showing that Wisconsin lost 6,200 private-sector jobs in April. However, this survey is based on a small sample of businesses, and the data are often revised months later. Further confusing matters, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in April that Wisconsin had the worst job growth in the country over the previous 12 months.
Barrett argues that Walker has been abysmal on the jobs front, and that he himself would do much better. But he is somewhat vague in detailing the tactics he'd pursue.
"Inevitably you have businesses looking for incentives," he says. "I've always asked the same two questions: How many jobs are we talking about, and are these family-supporting jobs?"
Walker's approach to job creation is to lower corporate tax rates and hope those corporations will use the added income to expand and hire.
Dresser says the hard truth is, there's not much a governor can do to affect job growth in the private sector, at least in the short term. The biggest impact the governor has on the economy is the oversight of 350,000 public-sector jobs, which includes all state and local governments. (Compare this to the manufacturing sector, which includes 450,000 workers.) And on that front, she says, Walker has had a negative effect, taking $750 million a year out of public workers' pockets with cuts in pay and benefits, a loss that trickles down to businesses throughout the state.
One of the areas hit hardest by Walker's last budget was education. Walker cut funding for K-12 education by more than $800 million. Schools were limited in their ability to cope with the cuts by a cap on how much they can raise property taxes, unless they get voter approval to exceed the cap. But Walker did give them the "tools" to offset cuts by reducing employee wages and benefits.
Barrett says he would work to restore school funding and increase the tax revenue cap. But he adds, "The restoration is not going to return overnight."
Republican Sen. Grothman says that if Walker loses, unions will stymie any attempts at meaningful educational reform. "Unions are not pro-education. Unions are just 'Give me more money,'" he says. "The idea that a teacher can say 'It's 2:15, I'm out of here,' or that a bad teacher can work in the schools for 25 years. It's hard to imagine good stuff for schools without changing those things."
Bobby Peterson thinks the Walker administration is living in free-market fantasyland. The director of ABC for Health says the administration of former Gov. Jim Doyle had been moving in the right direction on health care by allowing healthier, younger people to access BadgerCare, the state's health insurance program for low-income residents. That, he says, distributed the risk among a larger pool.
"The Walker administration has really moved away from the idea of large-scale pooling," Peterson says. "The numbers in BadgerCare are plummeting. Their model is to try to support and expand the free market."
He adds: "The free-market zealots believe that BadgerCare is taking away business and that these folks ought to pay for private health insurance."
Peterson says that keeping people off BadgerCare will only drive up health costs for everybody. As more and more people go uninsured, they'll start seeking care in emergency rooms, where they can't be denied. But they won't be able to pay for it, so the costs will be picked up by those who have insurance.
In a heavily aired campaign ad, Walker argues that he's funded BadgerCare more than any other governor, increasing spending by $1.2 billion. This is technically true, Peterson says, but not because the governor wanted to do it.
When the economy tanked, enrollment in BadgerCare began to soar. President Obama's stimulus package allowed for the program to expand. But then the federal money dried up, leaving a $1.8 billion funding gap. Rather than immediately take health care away from hundreds of thousands of people, Walker provided $1.2 billion in funding, while still making cuts to the program.
In the past, Walker has criticized BadgerCare as being rife with fraud. In a debate during the 2010 election, he advocated cutting people off the system after a certain period.
"It was supposed to be a temporary safety net for people as they went from welfare into the workplace," Walker said. "It was supposed to be a temporary step up. Instead…we see a permanent entitlement created, and that's brought forth all sorts of fraud and abuse."
Peterson is at a loss to compare Barrett with Walker, because Barrett "hasn't said a lot yet. And I wish he would."
Lisa Subeck sees little upside for women in a Walker victory. The Madison alder and executive director for NARAL-Pro Choice Wisconsin fears "we'd see a continuation of the war on women that we've been seeing for the past year and half."
In particular, Subeck predicts Walker would further restrict women's access to contraception, abortion and reproductive health care. Subeck expects Walker would craft legislation allowing pharmacies not to fill prescriptions for birth control if it conflicts with a pharmacist's beliefs. She also expects a push for a "personhood amendment" to the state constitution, defining fetuses as humans.
Subeck thinks Walker would funnel tax dollars to so-called pregnancy crisis centers, which pose as Planned Parenthood-style centers but are in fact religious groups with an anti-abortion agenda.
"In the past year, we saw a resolution to honor these centers," she says.
The son of a Baptist minister, Walker has indicated in interviews that his Christian faith strongly shapes his actions as governor. "God's got a plan for us that, who knows what it might be, beyond just serving as governor of this state," he told the Christian Broadcast Network on April 4. "But if we stay true to that, there's always comfort. And God's grace is always abundant no matter what you do, and it's just every step of the way."
On Mother's Day, Walker rejected the "war on women" accusations, especially in relation to the repeal of the equal pay enforcement act, which gave women who have been discriminated against another legal recourse to seek compensation.
"It's a bogus issue," he said. "It is against the law to discriminate against women for employment and to pay them less than you pay men, and it will continue to be."
Subeck is confident that Barrett would take a different tack from Walker on women's issues. "I would expect that Barrett would stop the attacks. Barrett would be a first line of defense on bills coming out of the legislature. He'll work to start undoing the damage Walker has done."
Barrett says that he believes in equal pay for women and that women should "be making their own health care decisions, in conjunction with their doctor, not their legislator."
Live to fight another day
With the election expected to be so close, it's hard for anyone politically engaged to see beyond June 5 right now. Both sides exhibit a mixture of hope and dread.
If Walker is a boogeyman for the left, Barrett plays a similar role on the right. Sen. Grothman says, "Tom Barrett's vision is that of a state in which we try to tax people who work as much as possible and thereby discourage business and discourage work."
Not even Chris Reeder knows what will happen to his motley group of solidarity singers after June 6, the last day they're set to sing in the Capitol Rotunda. He admits that a Walker victory "would be a blow" to the activist community.
But, he adds, no matter who wins, the singers will keep meeting to rally the troops, though probably not every day.
"No matter who wins on June 5, there's always going to be issues to work on, and we want to make sure the politicians are working for the people," Reeder says. "But what really happened last year is that a whole generation of people were awakened. Win or lose on June 5, we're going to keep working for the Wisconsin we believe in."