Posted tagged ‘Scott Walker’

What Would Tommy do?

April 19, 2016

Last fall I had lunch with a friend who covered Wisconsin’s Capitol when Tommy Thompson ran the state for 14 years. By the end, he said, Thompson had tired of the constant grind. Only when Thompson talked about his plans for the UW System did the old fire return
That stuck with me. A few years earlier I wrote a Capitol piece for Milwaukee Magazine that discussed the politically surprising partnership between the Republican governor and  liberal-minded UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala in launching a huge and transformative building program for the university.
Times have changed. Today the Capitol and the university see one another as an unreliable partner. I write:

The disharmony stems in part from the tensions of a generally liberal-minded university working with a decidedly conservative state government. Further exacerbating the relationship is the obliqueness of UW System bookkeeping and the Republican belief it hid a huge slush fund. (This became a key factor in the GOP-enforced tuition freeze and UW budget cut.) Add in the troubling geographic complaints that the UW System is Madison-centric and shorts the rest of the state and Milwaukee in particular.

UW advocates, in turn, are reeling from the $250 million UW budget cut, the four-year tuition freeze, the stripping of tenure protection from state statutes and Gov. Scott Walker’s surprise attempt in an earlier budget to bowdlerize the “Wisconsin Idea” that guides the UW’s mission to the citizenry.

All this makes for an unpleasant stew of missed signals, aggravation, suspicion and wheel spinning. Not to mention a nagging sense that the state as a whole is grievously hurt by the failure of the pols and profs to make nice.

Once upon a time it was different. Governors, Democrat and Republican alike, would tap top UW talent to serve and help run their administrations. Over the past 40-plus years this included Govs. Patrick Lucey, Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson deploying such UW luminaries as David Adamany, Walter Dickey, Ralph Andreano, Charles Cicchetti, Steve Born, Kenneth Lindner and Donald Percy in government service.

But under Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and now Scott Walker, a Republican, a new dynamic has emerged — governors ignoring the UW’s best and brightest to rely almost exclusively on their loyalists and apparatchiks to set policy and run the huge army of state employees.

More than one UW person I talked to spoke approvingly (if not longingly) of the Tommy Thompson era. That’s when an activist Republican governor with Hamiltonian ambitions for a greater Wisconsin found common ground with the university to unleash a major expansion of the UW System, including several billion dollars in campus construction.

How did he do it?

“I realized the university had to be my ally,” Thompson, 74, explains matter-of-factly, as if he were addressing a Poli Sci 101 class. “I had to make the university much more responsive to the needs of Wisconsin. And I said to myself I have to do it in a collegial way, because I don’t have the political power to do it alone. I’ve got to make sure the university understands I’m going to be its best friend. And for that friendship — quid pro quo — they’re going to help me build every part of this state.”

You don’t hear talk like that anymore in Wisconsin. An obvious question calls out: What would Tommy do to improve the sad state of campus-Capitol relations?

To find the answer, please go here.

There are two sidebars with the story. (The whole package is about 5,000 words.) The first reports how Thompson, a life-long UW booster, will be honored at UW-Madison’s spring commencement. The second details how the state’s failing efforts at economic development ignore the recommendations of UW researchers.

 

Abandoned Mine Ahead

November 30, 2015

A few weeks ago, The Financial Times reported that  the price of steel rebar (the reinforcing rods used in concrete construction) had plunged to a record low on the Shanghai futures market. And the price of iron ore had dropped as well, meaning that mining companies would likely cut production.

That was bad news for the Wisconsin economy. The Badger State has a substantial — but struggling — mining equipment industry in the Milwaukee area.

More to the point, the cooling of the Chinese economy is a major reason why the pipe dream of a revived iron ore mining in northern Wisconsin quickly burst. I examine the flawed thinking of the mine promoters  — notably Gov. Scott Walker and the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce–in a piece for Isthmus.

 

Thomas Power, 75, an emeritus natural resources economist at the University of Montana, has studied mining for almost 50 years. He chuckled and said “certainly not” when I asked him in a phone interview if mining iron ore in northern Wisconsin was a good bet for producing jobs and wealth.

“Mining in the United States hasn’t been a growth center or a source of regional prosperity for at least a half century,” he says. “Just look across the country. When was the last time the Iron Range in Minnesota was prosperous? Or the last time when Butte, Montana, was prosperous? Or the Appalachian coal fields? Or the Ozark lead fields? Or the Arizona copper towns?”

The only contemporary success story he could cite was gold mining in the middle of nowhere Nevada, where the workers commute to work.

Reality is that mining operates on a recurring boom-and-bust cycle, he notes, and the bounce-backs are inevitably fueled, in part, by technological advances that reduce the workforce.

Mining jobs, as a result, has been greatly reduced. “It’s like agriculture,” Power says. “The rural Great Plains is losing people. Its not because we’re producing less and less wheat. It’s because we need almost no people to produce the wheat. It’s the same with mining.”

“It’s hard to imagine how some sort of sustainable prosperity can be built around an industry of that sort,” he adds. “That’s not badmouthing mining. That’s just the facts of the matter.”

To read more, please go here.

Wisconsin’s Two Great Crises

September 21, 2012

In this column for Isthmus, I argue that Wisconsin’s economic malaise has been made worse by the failure in the state’s leadership. Here’s a chunk of copy:

For a good decade, Wisconsin’s economy has stagnated and declined. Even the end of the Great Recession in 2009 brought no real relief.

The ugly truth is that the Wisconsin workforce has shed 164,500 jobs from the pre-recessionary high in December 2007. That’s almost a 6% decline, according to a fine, detail-rich report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

But the situation is even worse, given the state’s population growth of 2.8%. COWS estimates that another 81,000 jobs are needed to keep the newcomers employed.

Wisconsin’s total job deficit? 245,900 jobs.

Just as bad, wallets are noticeably thinner for almost everyone. COWS focuses on four-person families and finds over the past decade that annual income has dropped from $84,500 to $76,000.

Note that conservatives often bash the Center on Wisconsin Strategy because its leaders — Joel Rogers and Laura Dresser — are advocates for progressive economic strategies. But the center’s reports pass the ideological blood test. COWS was just as hard on Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle during his lackluster eight years when the Wisconsin economy first slid into the ditch.

And that brings us to the most discouraging fact of all: Wisconsin’s leaders — not just Democrats and Republicans, but business and labor, city and county, even university and tech school leaders — have been depressingly ineffective in getting us out of that ditch.

We have a leadership deficit in Wisconsin, not just a jobs deficit.

To read more , including my criticism of Gov. Scott Walker for saddling the state’s jobs agency with a political appointee with no relevant experience, please go here.

The I-94 Road to Prosperity

June 13, 2012

Politically, Madison and Milwaukee are two Democratic peas in a pod. But culturally  they are like oil and water.  Go figure.

In a story for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I make the case that the two cities need to pull together through an economic corridor along  I-94.

The story begins:

What is it about Milwaukee and Madison – that potent mix of mutual disdain, disregard and ignorance that characterizes their odd relationship?

“Only 80 miles separate them, but it’s like the cities are on different sides of the moon,” says James Rowen, who has worked in journalism and for mayors in both cities.

Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist who served for 12 years in the Legislature, offers another celestial view. “It’s the difference between Saturn and Jupiter. Milwaukee and Madison are on different planets,” he says. “Even as technology erases distances, the two cities remain impervious to cooperating.”

John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian and columnist for the Journal Sentinel, says Madison and Milwaukee are like estranged siblings who meet at Thanksgiving and then don’t talk for the rest of the year.

But enough metaphors – I have to blurt out something as loudly as I can.

Wisconsin needs Madison and Milwaukee to pull together.

Simply put, that 80-mile I-94 corridor traversing Milwaukee, Waukesha, Jefferson and Dane counties could be the muscle and brain of Wisconsin’s 21st century economic renaissance.

The four counties cover less than 5% of the state but have one-third of its population, 44% of its college graduates and almost 40% of Wisconsin jobs, according to the UW-Extension’s Center for Community and Economic Development. The synergy of a great transportation corridor connecting the state’s two largest metropolitan areas seems obvious.

Tom Hefty, the retired head of Blue Cross-Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, made that case 10 years ago when he tried – and failed – to persuade Gov. Jim Doyle to adopt a corridor development plan as part of the state’s economic strategy.

The logic: Milwaukee is the state’s finance and commercial capital. Madison is the political capital and home to a world-class research university. Waukesha County is a teeming entrepreneurial beehive. Already, a good chunk of workers travel back and forth along the corridor. Major educational facilities, including a rising UWM, prepare the workforce.

“You combine an academic powerhouse with a commercial powerhouse and you get job growth,” says Hefty.

Do you think that Wisconsin’s languishing economy could use more jobs? The answer is obvious, but the politics here are deeply dysfunctional. Talk about Mission Impossible. It’s not just Milwaukee vs. Madison, but their shared liberalism is abhorrent to conservative Waukesha County. Lambs will lie down with lions before corridor politicians ever work together.

In that context, Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to kill the $810 million federally funded train service between Milwaukee and Madison is just one more smack-down in that endless grudge match.

But here’s the thing: The corridor is coming together without those feuding politicians.

To read the rest of the story, please go here.

To read a similar argument I made for Chicago-to-Milwaukee connection, please go here.

 

Handicapping the Recall Election

April 9, 2012

I offered my take on the upcoming gubernatorial recall election for the blogger David Blaska. You can find all of the responses here.

Here’s what I had to say:

            Who’s going to win the recall? I don’t know.

I will venture this: For that sliver of the electorate that is undecided, the recall won’t pivot on the union issue, but on the condition of the Wisconsin economy.

Scott Walker could have a big problem here. It’s not just that the job numbers were so bad in his first year, but the Republicans fumbled two key economic development issues–creation of a venture capital fund and writing viable mining legislation.

Who would have guessed they would be so inept on fundamental business issues?

Walker’s best hope requires a twist worthy of an O’Henry  short story: Will there be enough of an Obama economic recovery to lift the floundering Badger economy?

As for the Democrats, their chances of beating Walker will almost certainly decline once they pick a candidate. Their leading hopefuls are palookas–the scarred losers of  previous statewide races.

Perhaps party chair Mike Tate can persuade the Democratic candidate to put a brown paper bag over his or her head. It could help.

But wait…if  Herb Kohl miraculously changes his mind and runs, game over.

Everyone knows that the wild card is the John Doe probe. All hell breaks lose if Walker is indicted for the shenanigans that occurred while he was Milwaukee County executive.

What the Democrats need — and probably won’t get — is a business-savvy candidate like Kohl who understands the utter centrality of growing the Wisconsin economy.

Bar none, there is no more important issue in Wisconsin today.

Kevin Conroy, the biotech innovator (and the son of a former Democratic Michigan state senator) who briefly considered a gubernatorial run in 2010, might have filled the bill. But his Exact Sciences start-up is at a critical point of development.

Finally, given the chaos of Wisconsin politics, I don’t rule out an intervention by space aliens.

Bat-crazy weirdness–this is the new norm in Wisconsin politics.

Missed Opportunity

January 22, 2012

I make the case in this Isthmus column that establishing a passenger rail connection between Madison and Milwaukee  would  strengthen the state’s economy in the decades to come. Ain’t happening:

What was the single most important decision Gov. Scott Walker made in his first year of office? Hands down, the consensus judgment would be undermining the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

But 20 or 30 years from now? Wisconsinites will probably point to Walker’s fateful decision to reject an $810 million federal grant to build a passenger rail line connecting Madison and Milwaukee.

Chances are that the logic for the train will be evident to most everyone by then. The I-94 corridor linking Dane County with Milwaukee and Waukesha will likely be the state’s 21st-century economic engine. In turn, it will be a vital link in what technology booster Tom Still has called the “I-Q Corridor” — the 400-mile stretch of interstate connecting the heavyweight metropolises of Chicago and the Twin Cities.

“That corridor contains some of the nation’s leading research universities, well-educated tech workers and thriving tech-based companies at all stages of development,” Still, who’s president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, wrote a few years ago.

Now imagine an updated rail system carrying people from the Twin Cities to downtown Chicago in less than six hours — even faster than driving and on a par with a complicated airline connection.

Oops! Don’t consider it. That scenario is precisely what Walker killed when he gave back the $810 million — federal funding that would have paid the full capital costs of connecting Madison to Milwaukee.

Says Watertown Mayor Ron Krueger: “That decision will hurt the state of Wisconsin for decades to come.”

To read more, please go here. For a related column,check this. 

Gov. Walker At One Year

January 7, 2012

Madison Magazine was nice enough to ask  me to write an assessment of Gov. Scott Walker’s first year in office. Here’s how it begins:

On Nov. 19, 1955, the modern age of conservatism began with young Bill Buckley publishing the first issue of his new magazine, National Review. Famously, Buckley said in the mission statement that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” to the liberalism that had dominated American government for the first half of the twentieth century.

Almost fifty-five years later, inspired by the same beliefs as Buckley, Gov. Scott Walker stood athwart Wisconsin history and yelled Stop to a century’s worth of progressive policies, as he announced his plans to break Wisconsin’s public employee unions as a way to rein in government spending.

The move ignited a cataclysm of protests that remain unabated today. And they helped frame the three paradoxes that mark Scott Walker’s tumultuous first year in office.

Go figure…

  • For years, Scott Walker had been a likable and gifted politician—a conservative rock star who could convince Democrats to vote for him for three terms as county executive of decidedly liberal Milwaukee County. Yet today, after pursuing a political agenda that is either remarkably courageous or spectacularly suicidal (maybe both!), the affable Walker finds himself dangerously underwater in the polls, disliked by most Wisconsinites and blamed for the state’s political turmoil.
  • Even if Walker is ignominiously recalled from office in 2012, he seems certain to be judged by historians as a transformative governor who changed the political DNA of Wisconsin. In short, public employee unionism will never be the same after Scott Walker, even if liberals sweep to power at the Capitol.
  • Walker is an unabashed pro-business governor who has proved surprisingly inept on key development issues. Bereft of savvy business advice in his inner circle, this corporate cheerleader fumbled the crucial venture capital issue, wasting months, and seems prisoner of a simplistic eighties-style of economic thinking. Meanwhile, his brash pledge to oversee creation of 250,000 jobs in his first term could be the petard on which his own political career is blown up.

Make no mistake: the paradoxical Mr. Walker is difficult to explain. The old Kris Kristofferson line —“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”—comes to mind.

Count me among the people who underestimated Walker….

To read more, please go here.

I also asked a cross-section of  Madisonians to offer their advice to the governor. Here’s what they had to say.

Former UW-Madison Chancellor had more to say than most people, and  this is it.

Why Milwaukee Needs Chicago

May 6, 2011

Modern markets don’t follow political boundaries…but politicians do. This  is a problem for Wisconsin in large and small ways. No more so than in  Wisconsin’s  war-like  competition with Illinois for economic development. I discuss the consequences in this column for Milwaukee Magazine:

In search of a better life, my parents decamped from Chicago in 1953 to 16 acres in rural Kenosha County near what is now I-94. I lived a happily hayseed childhood replete with a drafty old farmhouse, a barn, and a menagerie of farm animals and dogs.

My dad, who had been a two-fisted Maxwell Street saloon keeper, was not a gentleman farmer. He wound up working in a warehouse in Skokie, Ill., and commuted at breakneck speed for 25-plus years. (Thanks to a talismanic bumper sticker, “Police Deserve a Teamster Contract,” the cops let him fly by.)

Looking back, I can see that my parents were pioneers, part of that first wave of Windy City expats who moved north of the border but remained tethered to Chicago’s economy. Decades later, Kenosha County is counted in Chicago’s statistical metropolitan area; its biggest for-profit employer, tellingly, is Illinois’ Abbott Laboratories near Waukegan.

And not far from where I once fished for carp and bullhead in the Des Plaines River, the corn and cabbage fields are long gone, replaced by the LakeView Corporate Park. Its 75 companies employ 7,500 people and occupy 10 million square feet of warehouses and offices, according to LakeView’s president, Jerry Franke.

More than half of the companies relocated from Illinois.

“It’s all about transportation,” Franke says of the park’s I-94 location. “When we started here in 1988, LakeView was between two major urban areas [Chicago and Milwaukee], and now we’re in the middle of one big one.”

That brings us to Gov. Scott Walker, who earlier this year ripped into Illinois’ tax hikes and entreated flatlander businesses to “Escape to Wisconsin,” where he had just lowered business taxes.

It made for great theater, but also showed Walker’s cluelessness. He failed to grasp the essential fact of the southeastern Wisconsin economy: Chicago is not its competition. Chicago is its ticket to future prosperity.

To read more, please click here. [Once broken, the link has been restored.]

Taking Aim At Labor Law

December 16, 2010

With the earth seemingly crumbling beneath them, public employee unions are reeling. This post for Milwaukee Magazine sums up the surprising views of two guys associated with the Democrats and labor–John Matthews and Mordecai Lee.

The story begins:

Even as Governor-elect Scott Walker and his triumphant fellow Republicans are promising to get tough on Wisconsin’s public employees, some liberals are also raising questions as to whether the rules for public unions should change.

Former Democratic lawmaker Mordecai Lee and veteran Madison teachers’ union leader John Matthews are among those who, well before the November election, had been arguing for major changes in Wisconsin labor law – changes that could lead to more strikes and turmoil. They made their remarks in response to questions from Milwaukee Magazine.

Lee, a quotable favorite of Wisconsin media, is a professor of governmental affairs at UW-Milwaukee. He believes public employees shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights because of their ability, he says, to manipulate elected officials through political endorsements and campaign contributions.

“You have legislators, mayors, county executives, supervisors – all of them subverted by labor’s political relationships,” he says.

Matthews is the dean of Madison labor leaders with 43 years in the cause. He is equally provocative, wanting to legalize public-employee strikes and toss out the landmark mediation – arbitration law that brought labor peace to Wisconsin schools and local governments after the stormy illegal strikes of the 1960s and 70s.

Matthews is fed up with arbitrators settling contracts. “I’d rather have our fights on the street,” he says. “We’ll go and block school entrances. We’ll tell people they shouldn’t be taking our jobs.”

To read more, please go here.

Federal spending: Wisconsin needs more

November 28, 2009

I examined the state’s dreadful record in securing federal dollars in pieces written for Milwaukee Magazine and Isthmus, my old paper in Madison.

Here is the  start of the Milwaukee Magazine column:

Too Pure for Pork

Our politicians do a wretched job of attracting federal spending to Wisconsin. Why do we let them get away with it? by Marc Eisen

Tuesday 9/1/2009

Here’s a story that tells you something about politics in Wisconsin: In January, Madison utility executive Gary Wolter was named the head of Gov. Jim Doyle’s stimulus office to work on securing federal funding. Within 24 hours, he was dubbed Wisconsin’s “pork czar” in repeated blog postings.

As Charlie Sykes pointed out, what could be weirder than fierce partisan antagonists like Democrat and liberal Ed Garvey and conservative blogger Deb Jordahl both sniffing their noses at Wolter’s appointment? Then again, even the whiff of “pork” gets proper Wisconsinites red-faced and indignant.

Take Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. His initial response to federal stimulus funding made it sound as if the dollars were secretly dosed with smallpox, like those horse blankets the Army supposedly gave Indians in the 19th century. He’d have none of it! (Not, at least, until the County Board said otherwise.)

There’s something deep in the Wisconsin character, a Badger thriftiness and sense of political rectitude, that seems to recoil at the notion that politicians should bring home the bacon. No one understood that better than the puritan Bill Proxmire, whose long senatorial run was marked by his temperance crusade against government waste. Ever since then, Democrats and Republicans alike (take a bow, Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan, Russ Feingold, John Norquist, et al.) have anointed themselves with magical oils to protect the state from the corrupting influence of federal dollars.

They’ve been wildly successful. And that’s a problem. Wisconsin, as you no doubt know from first-hand experience, is mired in an economic slump. In per capita income and new jobs created, we badly trail some of our neighboring states. Ditto for economic growth. Meanwhile, we pay way more in federal taxes than is returned to us via federal jobs, research grants, aid to state and local government, and other programs.

The gap in fiscal 2007 was a staggering $5.6 billion, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. That’s right: We sent $5.6 billion more to Washington than we got back in federal spending.

Read more here.

Here is the start of the much-longer  Isthmus story:

State of chumps
Wisconsin has only itself to blame for losing out on its fair share of federal aid
Marc Eisen on Friday 10/09/2009

Todd Berry blames it on our genes. The president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance suggests the state’s chronic indifference to federal help is buried deep within our political DNA.

The Yankees who first settled Wisconsin, he says, “were suspicious of large, autocratic central government.” The Germans and Scandinavians who followed weren’t much different: They were “independent, hardworking, self-reliant…and suspicious again of a distant central government.”

I think the late Sen. Bill Proxmire — not genetics — is mostly to blame. But however you apportion responsibility, the legacy is the same: Wisconsin does wretchedly as a recipient of federal spending.

There are lots of bad measures to point out, but the key one is this: We rank 48th among the 50 states in federal aid, saved from last place only by Nevada and Utah.

This dreadful performance has a real-life impact on Wisconsin’s economic well-being. It means fewer jobs, poorer public services and a heavier state and local tax burden.

Federal spending in Wisconsin came to $7,132 per person in fiscal 2008, according to federal data newly analyzed by the Northeast-Midwest Institute. The national average was $8,904 per person — a $1,772 difference.

Do the math. Wisconsin’s population numbered about 5.6 million in 2008. Multiply each person by that shortfall and you come to $9.9 billion. That’s how much more money would have sloshed around the state economy if we had just hit the average for federal spending in fiscal 2008. Perish the thought we should score high, like Alaskans and Virginians.

Read more here.


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