MADISON, Wis. — Best known nationally for his struggle with unions, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is staking out conservative ground in broader ways as he prepares for a likely run for the Republican presidential nomination.
These ways are stuffed into his recent budget proposal and some of them are going to be a tough sell even with fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.
In the proposal, Walker calls for eliminating oversight of for-profit colleges, letting private insurance companies into the state’s managed care system and cutting money for public schools that lose students to private voucher schools. This, on top of cutting taxes and the number of state workers as part of a scaling back of state government.
That’s classic Walker, said conservatives who have followed his more than two decades in public office, the last four-plus years as governor.
“Largely, it’s a victory for conservatives,” said Brett Healy, president of the conservative MacIver Institute for Public Policy. But polling suggests some of Walker’s moves are unpopular in the state.
While Walker made his mark by effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers in 2011, then turning Wisconsin into a right-to-work state this year, he’s also checked off a battery of conservative priorities.
He’s already cut income and corporate taxes by nearly $2 billion, lowered property taxes, legalized the carrying of concealed weapons, made abortions more difficult to obtain, required photo identification when voting and expanded the state’s private school voucher school program.
And now this year, the first of his second term, he’s going even farther by proposing a $300 million, or 13 percent, cut in state money for the University of Wisconsin and freezing tuition there for two years while granting it more independence from state laws.
A state poll out Thursday from Marquette University Law School found overwhelming opposition to some of his proposed cuts and a drop in his approval rating. In the poll, 78 percent of those surveyed opposed cuts to school aid and 70 percent were against cuts to the university. Walker’s approval dropped to 41 percent, lowest in the three years of the survey.
The governor’s budget would lower property taxes $5 on average each of the next two years for median-valued homes. However, that comes at the expense of public schools, which would face a $135-per student loss in state aid.
He wants to get government out of the business of regulating for-profit colleges, eliminating a board that oversees them. He’s also proposing to eliminate 66 science and education positions at the Department of Natural Resources, in the name of efficiency, but leading to charges that the move will increasingly politicize the agency.
His budget also would require people seeking public benefits to pass a drug test, which Walker says would help prepare them for the workforce.
Walker’s budget proposals will play well with conservatives nationally, said Brian Fraley, a longtime conservative activist in Wisconsin.
Fraley summed up the priorities conservatives see fulfilled in Walker’s budget: “Spend less. Trim the number of state employees. Tax less.”
But for all of that, he’s got a tough road ahead with Republican lawmakers, not to mention Democrats, before the Legislature passes a budget sometime in June.
For example, concerns are being raised about Walker’s call to replace the system that provides long-term and medical care for the elderly and disabled with one designed to keep them in their homes.
And his cost-saving move to have senior citizens in Wisconsin’s popular prescription drug program first enroll in Medicare Part D, where they would probably pay more for their medications, was declared dead on arrival by the Republican budget committee co-chair after a public outcry.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is also pushing back against Walker’s plans for the university and his plan to borrow $1.3 billion for roads and $220 million for a new Milwaukee Bucks stadium.
The Bucks idea even drew an objection from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch.
“There should be no state dollars going for something like that,” said David Fladeboe, the group’s state director.
Even so, Walker’s budget this year largely is a win for conservatives and a continuation of the progress he made during his first term, Fladeboe said.
“It’s a very good budget for a fiscal conservative,” Healy said. “We’ve come to expect that from Governor Walker.”