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Homepage / POLITICS

Governors Break Gridlock, Still Can't Satisfy Voters

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
August 9, 2011

Just seven months after taking office, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is awaiting the verdict of the voters on Tuesday. He’s not on the ballot, but his agenda is, as voters go to the polls in six recall elections aimed at ousting Republican state senators who backed Walker’s deep budget cuts.

If states are supposed to be laboratories of democracy, the results of the latest experiments can’t be encouraging to congressional lawmakers grappling with the budget deficit. Walker was one of a number of new governors who inherited nine and 10-digit budget deficits when they arrived in January. Whether they pursued the tea party prescription of deep budget cuts, the Democrats’ preferred strategy of tax hikes, or a combination, the public has proved equally ungrateful.

The broad public sneer blanketing Washington reverberates in the states, where both Democratic and GOP freshman governors are catching beatings in public opinion. In Florida, GOP Gov. Rick Scott has humped along for months with approval ratings hovering around 33 percent. In a Quinnipiac University poll last month, Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich was underwater with 50 percent disapproving and 35 percent approving. Last month, a New York Times average of polls since April put Democratic Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s approval rating at 45 percent, in a heavily Democratic state. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, also a Democrat, earned a 38 percent approval rating in a June Quinnipiac poll. Even where governors retain personal popularity, their actions are yielding yowls of protest. There is, for now, no popular solution to the straits of governments.


Walker and several of his fellow Republicans who caught the tea party tailwind already reaped the results from the cuts that Washington is still anticipating. At the Republican National Committee conference last week in Tampa, Walker proudly informed his audience—hours before Standard and Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating—that ratings agencies had recently affirmed the Badger State’s credit. Still, it was telling that in the days before Wisconsin voters decide whether to recall six GOP and two Democratic state senators, Walker was absent from the state. Last month, a University of Wisconsin poll found an all-time high level of dissatisfaction with the way things were going in the state, and only 37 percent approved of Walker’s job performance.

Democratic governors argue that their approach is easier for their constituents, as both taxpayers and consumers of government services, to stomach. In most cases, with cozier relationships with unions, they’ve approached the labor contract legislation as a collective-bargaining exercise, bringing union leaders into the process. Malloy told National Journal he had been “repulsed” by budget-cutting tactics in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey, charging other governors with scorched-earth, unilateral governing.

But even Malloy was doubtful the empty-the-tool-shed approach he deployed would play in Washington.

Mandated to balance their budgets, Democrats in the states do not have the option of resisting cuts that that Congress has long postponed. And since state revenues began diving last decade, they have at least preached the blended approach: tax hikes, cuts, carefully targeted investments, and wrangling with unions.

State governments function differently Washington (and a cynic might argue that the difference lies in the fact that they function at all). Grassroots protests matter in state capitals. In Washington, with rare exceptions, they do not. Walker earned his collective-bargaining crackdown, but not before raising the hackles of Democrats enough to put in motion the backlash culminating, win or lose, in Tuesday’s recall election.

Malloy took office with a roughly $3.5 billion deficit, the largest per-capita shortfall in the country. “We cut, we sought concessions, and we raised taxes. That’s what we did,” he said. After his initial benefit-trimming package—including a two-year wage freeze and increased contributions for health care and pension plans—was voted down by unions, labor leaders lowered the threshold for approval. Those deliberations are still pending; Malloy expects to learn the results by August 18. The plan, he said, would save $1.6 billion over two years, and $21.5 billion over 20 years. If labor rejects the deal, additional layoffs and $700 million more in cuts will take effect, he said.

“When in doubt, collaborate,” Malloy said. “Or always be in doubt and collaborate.”

Unlike neighboring freshman Democratic governor, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Malloy has seen poll results similar to Walker’s. A June Quinnipiac poll gave Cuomo a 64 percent approval rating, with just 19 percent disapproval. Malloy in June garnered 44 percent disapproval—sharply lower than Walker’s 59 percent disapproval.

Connecticut GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola upbraided Malloy for what he called a timid budgeting strategy.

“A courageous leader like Governor Scott Walker is the one extreme and the opposite extreme would be the unfortunate approach taken by Governor Malloy,” Labriola told NJ.

Pointing to the “permanent structural reform” Walker and lawmakers put in place, Labriola said, “That in no way has happened in Connecticut. It’s been a mishmash of efforts to attempt to balance the budget, which I do not feel will ultimately be balanced. Despite all appearances, it still represented a coddling of the government unions. The legislative leaders in Connecticut and the governor still view organized government labor as their core constituency and they will always benefit over all other interests in the state.”

Malloy argues that the union-targeting by Republicans like Walker, Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leads to scapegoating and foments division.

“Listen, try raising taxes anytime. That’s not an easy thing to do and it doesn’t make you popular.

You take the heat,” Malloy said.

Malloy acknowledged that his election last year, by less than 7,000 votes over Republican Tom Foley, did not gift him with an unalloyed mandate.

“A lot of people are just giving me time, to see how the whole thing works out,” he said.

Time is exactly what public policymakers lack, as markets convulse, public fears of another recession rise, and voter anger at politicians surges. And Democrats defending labor increasingly find themselves searching for ways to explain how the private sector can continue to subsidize the public. A Harvard Kennedy School study released on Monday found that states’ perceived risks of default on their bonds are linked not only to their economic conditions, but also their degrees of public-sector unionization and the percentage of Democrats within their legislatures.

Asked whether the self-described “collaborative” approach he used in the Nutmeg State could serve as a blueprint in Washington, Malloy replied, “Apparently not. Look at the gymnastics that had to be gone through over an elongated period of time to produce relatively little around the debt issue, and look at the disparate approaches on the debt issue, and really the inability to compromise.”

The message from the states, where leaders have not been stymied by gridlock but instead found their ways to solutions across the spectrum and been condemned in doing so, is that inaction is not the only flaw that voters detest. It’s that the act of governing, any act of governing, may be poisonous to the point of paralysis.

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