Facing a determined recall effort by Democrats in his home state, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) defended his public-employee reforms as adjustments that ultimately protect the middle class.
Speaking at AEI today, Walker said that the "modest adjustments" to payroll contributions in a government match do not equal taking benefits away from public-sector workers, as unions charge.
"I was elected to fix things," Walker said. "Once I got elected, I said, I'm not going to wait."
And for the governor, that meant thinking first about middle-class taxpayers, "not about some union leader."
"Collective bargaining in the public sector is not a right; it's an expensive entitlement," Walker said.
Facing budget cuts like nearly every other governor in the country a year ago, the first-term governor said that he saw five options to balance things out: raise taxes, lay off thousands of public employees, cut entitlements, employ accounting tricks or implement long-term structural reform.
"Collective bargaining in the public sector is not a right; it's an expensive entitlement." "We picked an option that is more about the next generation than the next election," Walker said of the last option, ultimately pursued by his administration.
This included letting public employees choose if they wanted to be part of a union or have deductions for dues taken from their paychecks. "I took away the gravy train, the free money [the unions] had before and gave it back to the workers," he said.
Walker said his office's reforms, which ignited fierce controversy in Wisconsin, yielded two main fruits: On Sept. 1, when kids went back to school, "nearly every school district across the state saw they were the same or better" with reforms by which teacher pay, hiring and firing is based on merit, and a couple weeks ago, when residents got property tax bills that reflected a decreased school levy.
"The reforms are working," Walker said, despite the "scare tactics" of unions spreading a message that he wants to strip public employees of their pensions.
"We're not proposing taking benefits away from any people," he said, noting a "disconnect" with people who haven't worked in the private sector. "What we ask for is not radical," he added. "It's still pretty generous compared to where people are at outside of government."
The recall effort against Walker began on Nov. 15 and organizers have 60 days to collect 540,000 petition signatures, which would force a new gubernatorial election in June. Walker said he expects organizers to pass that threshold, and also expects lots of money to come from outside the state in the fight to remove him from office.
"It is what it is," he said, noting that he'll lay out the "stark contrast" in a new election campaign between where Wisconsin was and the "tremendous turnaround" brought by his reforms.
"Let's be clear who pays for the excessive expanse of government," Walker said. "It is fundamentally about the middle class taxpayers ... we're going to make decisions that ultimately protect them."
"There's a false choice in government between either raising taxes or cutting services" to balance budgets, Walker said. "It's no longer acceptable in Wisconsin."
Bridget Johnson is the managing editor of AEI.org