MADISON – A lone tenor lifted "We Shall Overcome" into the vault of the State Capitol here last week, a weak echo of the mass protests that ringed the elegant downtown building two years ago, when Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature embarked on a political makeover of the state.
Walker emerged from those protests and a recall election victory relaxed and recharged, committed to setting Wisconsin on a sharply divergent path from Minnesota, where the DFL-controlled Legislature just concluded one of the most liberal budget sessions in decades.
Together with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, legislators pushed through a hefty tax increase on the wealthy, boosted funding for public education from preschool through college and expanded government health coverage for low-income Minnesotans through the officially approved Affordable Care Act.
"It's a tale of two states," state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat, said as she waited this week to make her points on the Finance Committee. "There really couldn't be a starker contrast," added a colleague, Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine.
In Wisconsin, the GOP-dominated Joint Finance Committee recently worked all night on a proposal that would further separate red-hot Wisconsin from true-blue Minnesota. A second straight budget with income and business tax cuts, statewide expansion of private school vouchers and opposition to much of the health care expansion offered by the officially despised Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare.
Walker believes his way will result in a stronger Badger State that will exert a magnetic pull on the Twin Cities. "We've heard from employers in the Twin Cities who also do business in Wisconsin," he said in his now-quiet state Capitol office, no longer besieged by bullhorns and chanting throngs. "It's not going to make them up and move. It's going to make them look to states like Wisconsin to expand in."
Dayton responded with the critique Wisconsin Democrats regularly throw at Walker — that he's all talk and no jobs. "Wisconsin has had the worst job performance in any state in the nation for the last two years," Dayton said. "We have a formula that works for Minnesota."
This laboratory of democracy divides two states with similar climates, similar demographics and similar Democratic preferences in presidential election years.
Last year President Obama won both states by similar margins — 7.7 percent in Minnesota and 6.9 percent in Wisconsin.
But there the resemblance ends. Walker and Wisconsin Republicans greatly weakened public-employee unions; Dayton and Minnesota approved an expansion of public-sector unions. Minnesota legalized gay marriage; Wisconsin banned it via constitutional amendment in 2006, long before Walker's tenure.
Walker and Wisconsin enacted a photo ID law that is winding its way through court challenges; Minnesota voters rejected a photo ID constitutional amendment, which Dayton had opposed.
"You mean Mars and Venus?" cracked Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College. "In both states, the political parties are very ideological, the Democrats emphatically liberal and the Republicans emphatically conservative. … The idea of Tweedledee and Tweedledum parties is long gone."
Health care fight
The personal and political stakes were on display in Madison last week, as the Joint Finance Committee met throughout the night in a packed committee room, debating whether to sign on to a Medicaid expansion offered by Obamacare. The GOP-Walker alternative was to turn down the Medicaid expansion, provide more coverage for adults under the poverty level and move 85,000 low-income residents into the private market through subsidized health care exchanges.
"People may not like it," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chair of the panel. "You know what? Life is changing — health care is changing."
Democrats said the decision was ideological, knee-jerk opposition to the federal reforms that would deny affordable coverage to lower-income people and end up costing state taxpayers more in the long run.
"I feel like we are on the pathway to the perfect storm," Sen. Shilling told the Wisconsin committee. "I look at Minnesota — it seems like they are on an upward swing. We are on a downward trajectory." When the committee voted in favor of the GOP plan, several people in the audience rose and shouted "Shame!" and had to be removed from the room.
Downstairs in his office, the prime mover of Wisconsin's conservative revival offered his own assessment. In his view, Wisconsin can have it all — a strong education system and a business-friendly tax climate that rewards income-earners and attracts expanding companies.
He traces much of that vision to "Act 10," the budget repair bill of his first months in office that stripped most bargaining rights from public employee unions. He said savings from those reforms continue to "balance both our state and local governments."
These changes, plus the tax climate, eventually will make Wisconsin stand out, particularly in the growing area along the St. Croix known here as "Minnesconsin," he said.
"All of those things, I think, are part of that tipping scale, maybe not so much for an exodus from one state to another, but as people look and say I want to be in one state or the other, I think you're going to see in St. Croix County and Polk County … you're going to continue to see that area being, as it has been, one of the fastest growing parts of Wisconsin."
Walker's GOP has a 21-vote majority in the Wisconsin Assembly and a three-vote margin in the much smaller Senate. Like Dayton, he is seeking a second term next year. Unlike Dayton, Walker also has begun speaking to Republican activists in Iowa, the beginning of the 2016 presidential trail. ("I haven't even thought about it," Walker said of the presidency.)
Walker's Democratic foes believe the governor and his legislative supporters are turning once-progressive Wisconsin into a proving ground for ideas promoted by national conservative groups — private school vouchers, tax cuts and photo ID.
"They're governing like this is Alabama," said Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Somers.
The viability of Wisconsin's path ultimately may turn on employment — and that has made job-counting a popular parlor game here.
So far, Walker has fallen far short of his job-growth goal of 250,000 in four years. The actual count is a fourth of that — 62,000 jobs. He argues that the recall campaign and election hurt job-recruitment efforts. He points to recent survey in Chief Executive Magazine, showing Wisconsin moving up in business rankings from 43rd place four years ago to 17th today.
But Wisconsin's jobless rate still stands at 7.1 percent, much higher than Minnesota's rate of 5.3 percent. Democrats here say simply, "Where are the jobs?"
They stack up federal reports and competing magazine rankings, including one this year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that put Wisconsin 44th in overall economic performance and dead last among the 50 states in short-term job growth. Forbes' magazine's ranking of "best states for business" ranked Wisconsin in 42nd place. Minnesota placed 15th in the Chamber study and 20th on Forbes' list.
"There's no way you can credibly say what he's doing is working, at least not in terms of job creation," said Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, the Assembly Minority Leader. "You would have to say it's been a complete failure – his budget and his approach."