MADISON, Wis. — While Scott Walker’s fellow Republicans were grousing about his budget plan and part of his proposal to overhaul higher education, the governor was more than 1,000 miles away, gripping the wheel of the Mt. Washington cruise boat on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee.
And when lawmakers met Monday night to reach a final deal on other elements of that budget, the likely presidential candidate was leading a trade mission to Canada, his fourth international trip in less than five months.
Absentee governors are part of the political landscape when a presidential campaign begins and some want to run. There’s no getting around the need to raise money, make national appearances and organize early in important states. What may distinguish Walker, though, is the grief he’s getting from his own party.
One GOP lawmaker has dissed his spending plan as a “crap budget,” and it gets worse than merely a rhetorical slap. While Walker has been courting voters, party activists and donors in advance of his expected announcement that he’s running for the 2016 party nomination, state GOP lawmakers, in concert with Democrats, have crushed some of his biggest ideas this year.
And that works against one clear advantage governors like Walker can bring to national politics — a record of achievement in public policy that many candidates coming from the Byzantine, often gridlocked chambers of Congress can’t match.
Walker played into that theme last week in addressing a Utah retreat held by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. Walker said flatly of senators in the presidential race: “They have yet to win anything and accomplish anything.” That was a dig at Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
In Wisconsin, however, lawmakers voted to restore money the governor wanted to cut for K-12 schools. They rejected his proposed changes to a popular prescription drug program for Medicaid recipients, scrapped a merger of state agencies Walker wanted but then pulled back from in the face of opposition and voted against the governor’s plan to make the University of Wisconsin system independent of state laws and oversight.
Walker has benefited from a state Senate and Assembly controlled by Republicans his entire four-plus years as governor. When he won re-election in November, he predicted that decisive action on his budget by the enlarged Republican majorities in the Legislature would serve as a contrast to a dysfunctional Washington.
“We’re going to be even more aggressive now because I think we have an even stronger ally in the Legislature,” Walker told his Cabinet.
Now it’s a struggle to find agreement on Walker’s proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing for roads, likely to be reduced, and a financing plan for a new $500 million arena to keep the Milwaukee Bucks from leaving the state. “We may have a crap budget, but we’re going to make it better,” freshman Republican state Rep. Rob Brooks told fellow lawmakers in May.
Walker says he’s as engaged as ever on the budget, and talks with his chief of staff more than a dozen times a day, no matter where he is. “The budget is a priority for us,” Walker said this month.
But it’s clear he will not get as much as he proposed back in February, or have it done faster than usual. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said it’s all part of the “normal and collaborative budget process.”
None of this has stopped Walker from making the rounds in early voting states such as Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
In late May, he courted party activists aboard a sunset dinner cruise as a legislative committee back home rejected his plan to give the University of Wisconsin more independence or cut state support for it by $300 million. But the panel did agree on $250 million in cuts to the 26 campuses, including the flagship in Madison.
“We are bowing to the pressure of a guy on a boat in New Hampshire,” Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said during that debate. “He’s not out there extolling the virtues of his idea of cutting $300 million from the university system because he’d probably be thrown off the boat. You don’t brag about the cuts.”
The committee also kept Walker’s call to remove tenure protections from state law, a proposal that’s garnering attention nationally from academics who fear weakening tenure protections will catch on elsewhere.
Even with delays and squabbling, Walker is likely to walk away with some big wins: on lifting an enrollment cap on statewide private school vouchers, on new drug screening for public aid recipients and on lowering property taxes below where they were when he took office. Those are all sure-fire crowd pleasers on the Republican presidential circuit.
At least in Walker’s view, he’s getting enough done so that he could tell his lake cruisers: “If we can do it in a blue state like Wisconsin, we can do it in the Granite State and all across America.”