March 27, 2011- The throng of angry protesters rushed into the state Assembly, filling every corner of the chamber and stopping lawmakers from moving forward with a piece of controversial legislation.
The crowd was angry. Police were tense. The Legislature was divided.
This act of civil disobedience didn’t occur in the past month. It took place more than 40 years ago — the last time Wisconsin faced a budget similar to the one it faces now.
In 1969, Milwaukee activist the Rev. James Groppi organized and led the “Welfare Mothers’ March on Madison.” That day a group of roughly 1,000 people — angry over proposed cuts to welfare — seized control of the Assembly and held it for 11 hours.
The budget under debate that year was written by a moderate Republican governor and tweaked by a conservative Legislature. At the time, it was considered by many to be Wisconsin’s most ideologically Republican budget ever.
That was until earlier this month, when Gov. Scott Walker introduced his first budget — a spending plan that seems to uniformly favor Republican pets such as school vouchers, transportation and tax cuts while targeting nearly every Democratic sacred cow.
Walker’s proposal, aimed at eliminating the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall, would cut more than $1 billion from education, knock more than 50,000 people off BadgerCare, roll back recycling and water purity requirements, and cut aid to the poor.
Supporters say it is the first honest budget in a generation, since any real reform requires serious cuts to entitlements and education. Critics say Walker is turning Wisconsin into a laboratory for the GOP.
“It is literally every single bad conservative idea of the last 20 years housed in a single budget document,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor who served for 14 years as a Democrat in the state Legislature, said Walker’s budget leaves little doubt as to his Republican bona fides.
“The governor comes across as a moderate, but as this budget shows, he is very, very conservative,” he said.
‘Reform’ or ‘Republican’?
Walker’s budget includes $28.7 billion in state funding, a 1.4 percent increase over the previous two-year spending plan. But the governor slashes the perennial imbalance between revenue and spending — known as the structural deficit — some 90 percent by 2013, from $2.5 billion to $250 million.
“It’s the first budget I can remember that isn’t full of a lot of funny money,” said Jim Klauser, GOP operative and former Department of Administration secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson. “The governor doesn’t have a lot of choices, really. You cut, or you raise taxes.”
When asked about his budget, which critics describe as unabashedly “Republican,” Walker raised his eyebrows, half-amused.
“Maybe it’s unusual, here and in Washington, but it’s a budget filled with my campaign promises,” he said. “These are things I ran on.”
Walker said his budget was more “reform” than “Republican.”
“We’ve had the last eight budgets, including some from Republicans, that have had some massive structural deficits,” Walker said. “(The problem has) been building for years.”