With the wealthy and powerful Koch brothers behind him and a contentious state budget out of the way, Wisconsin’s polarizing Gov. Scott Walker will announce Monday evening what many have long suspected: that he will seek the Republican nomination for President in 2016.
Much of Walker’s appeal to conservatives lies in his record of enacting far-right policies as the governor of a historically progressive, working class swing state. Riding over more than a century of strong labor history, he passed laws in 2011 stripping away collective bargaining rights from public sector unions, triggering a weeks-long occupation of the state capitol by tens of thousands of protesters. Then, earlier this year, he signed a so-called “right to work” law that will further cripple workplace organizing in the Badger State.
At a time when both conservative and progressive states across the country have embraced a boost in their minimum wages, Walker has not only refused to consider a raise for Wisconsin’s workers, he questioned whether there should be wage protections at all. Other worker protections have also been eliminated, including the right to one day off per week.
Just a few months before announcing his bid for president, at his State of the State address in Madison, Walker told lawmakers that “Wisconsin is more free and prosperous” after his first four years in office, and assured them, “The Wisconsin Comeback is working.”
But several studies have shown that the governor’s economic agenda — slashing property and corporate taxes, restricting collective bargaining and keeping wages low — has left the state in a precarious position. Data from the Pew Charitable Trusts predicts that Wisconsin will end this fiscal year with less money in reserve than any other state in the country. Walker’s 2011 tax cuts, which largely benefited wealthy landowners and factory owners, will cost the state at least $275 million in additional lost tax revenue over the next two years — twice as much as originally predicted.
To close the gaping budget deficit exacerbated by those tax cuts, Walker is cutting funding for the state’s famed public universities by $250 million over the next two years. These impending cuts, which are already prompting schools to force out professors and cut entire programs, comes as the campuses are still struggling to absorb the cuts Walker approved in 2011. Faculty members also lost their right to tenure in the budget Governor Walker signed one day before launching his bid for president.
Wisconsin currently leads the nation in unemployment for African Americans. And Walker has failed to deliver on his promise to create 250,000 private sector jobs during his first term in the state. His most recent budget eliminated hundreds of government jobs, especially targeting scientists at the Department of Natural resources.
Amid these cuts, Governor Walker increased spending on prisons — in keeping with his decades-long record of supporting “tough on crime” policies to give offenders longer and harsher sentences. Now, the state spends more money on prisons than it does on public universities.
Scott Walker’s environmental record offers another window into how he would govern in the White House. The governor plans to openly defy new federal regulations on coal plant emissions, and has said he believes the Environmental Projection Agency should have its powers gutted.
In 2013, he pushed through a controversial bill to loosen regulations on mining and allow a massive, open pit iron ore operation to begin strip-mining in the state’s northern forests. Among other provisions, the law creates a presumption that damage to wetlands is necessary and exempts companies from paying a recycling fee on waste rock. The corporation that would have benefited from the mine donated $700,000 to Walker’s defense in the 2012 recall campaign, sparking accusations of quid pro quo corruption. They later abandoned their mining plans after discovering that the wetland destruction required would be far more extensive than originally anticipated.
As he enters an already crowded Republican field and competes for donation from the Koch brothers and other conservative moguls, Walker and his supporters have repeatedly pointed to his victory over the progressives who tried to recall him from office in 2011 and beat him in 2014.
But questions continue to dog the governor around whether he won that election, and his original election to the governor’s mansion in 2010, fairly. A John Doe investigation has already led to convictions of six of Walker’s former aides on charges of illegal coordination, embezzlement and corruption. Among other findings, the employees were secretly working on his campaign while they were on the clock as state employees.
The investigation into whether Walker himself participated in these election law violations is still ongoing. If the right-wing group Club for Growth is successful in its efforts to have the case thrown out, voters casting their ballots for president in 2016 may never know the extent of the governor’s involvement.