The governor spent more than three hours Thursday fielding questions from members of the federal House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the actions he took during his first months in office to deal with the state’s budget troubles.
Gov. Scott Walker, along with Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, were invited to speak before the committee, which serves as the House’s main investigative council, during a hearing titled “State and Municipal Debt: Tough Choices Ahead.” A common theme of the hearing centered around whether the steps each governor took to ease their states’ economic issues were made out of choice or out of necessity.
Walker’s said his predecessors were able to choose how to deal with the budget, but it is because of their choices Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion deficit in the next biennium.
“Our reforms allow us to take a new and better approach. Instead of avoiding the hard decisions and searching for short-term solutions, we make a commitment to the future,” Walker said. “The choices we are making now in Wisconsin will make sure our children are not left picking up the pieces of the broken state budget others left behind.”
Those hard decisions have been addressed in two budget bills Walker introduced already this year – the budget repair bill and the proposed 2011-2013 biennium budget, both beacons of controversy.
The repair bill, currently stalled in the court system, would limit collective bargaining rights for public employees and require those employees to contribute more to their pension and health care plans. The new budget bill includes a number of cuts, including $834 million from public k-12 schools, $100 million in aid from counties and municipalities and $64 million of state support for local recycling programs.
Walker called his methods “truly progressive” and insisted they would protect middle class jobs and taxpayers. He said his reforms helped to create the lowest structural deficit in recent history, amounting to a $2 billion reduction.
Committee Democrats were tough on Walker, with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, puzzled as to how limiting the bargaining rights of public employees would save Wisconsin any money. The two talked over each other until Walker answered.
“How much money does it save governor, answer the questi-” Kucinich said.
“That particular part does not save any money,” Walker responded.
Throughout the process of passing the bill curtailing bargaining rights, Walker said that putting a stop to union negotiations on working conditions and wages would save Wisconsin money. University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden said Walker’s interaction with Kucinich at the hearing was pretty bruising to the governor.
“Representative Kucinich got him to admit on the record that the limits on collective bargaining do not help the budget situation at all,” Burden said. “That was quite remarkable.”
Still, Burden said, Walker would come out of the hearing as a prominent figure in the national Republican scene. The reason Walker received an invitation to address the House committee is because he is something of a darling in Republican circles, Burden said, and committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, wanted to showcase Walker’s actions to take on the Wisconsin budget.