Walker slips in the polls and opinion is divided on his budget proposal

Gov. Scott Walker. Photo by Patti Wenzel

It’s been a week since Gov. Scott Walker presented his 2011-13 biennial budget to the state, and opinions about it have been coming out fast and furious. While most tend to fall along party and ideological lines, recent polls indicate that the general public seems to be shifting its opinion as well.

According to at least three polls, two of which lean conservative, Walker’s support has slipped, with less than 50 percent of voters viewing him favorably. He received 52.3 percent of the vote in November, but after two months in office and the release of a controversial budget repair bill and his first full biennial budget,  his disapproval ratings equal those of Jim Doyle before he left office.

The Rasmussen Poll (typically viewed as right-wing) found 57 percent of likely Wisconsin voters disapprove of Walker’s performance, while 43 percent approve of his actions to date.

Households with private-sector union members approve of Walker by 46 percent, while public-union member households only give him a 19 percent approval rating. Among non-union households, Walker’s numbers are more evenly split; 49 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable.

Walker does about the same in a recent poll by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, another conservative-leaning organization. In a survey of 603 Wisconsinites conducted before the Governor’s biennial budget address, WPRI poll showed 51 percent of respondents are somewhat or strongly opposed to Walker’s plans, while 46 percent are somewhat or strongly in favor them.

Governor Walker is not alone in making Wisconsin residents unhappy. The WPRI poll also shows a slight majority disapproves of the actions of the Wisconsin 14 (51 to 47 percent). An overwhelming majority are in favor of public employees contributing toward their benefits (81 percent), but hold favorable opinions of public unions’ right to exist (58 to 32 percent, with 10% neutral or undecided). Most voters also say they want Walker to compromise with the Democrats and union leaders.

“Not surprisingly, this is driven largely by partisan dynamics” says Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison professor on leave who directed the survey. “About 77 percent of Republicans think the governor should stand strong and 94 percent of Democrats want a compromise.  The key here is independents.  Independents overwhelmingly want the governor to compromise with 68 percent believing he should do so and 29 percent thinking he should stand strong.”

And two polls conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm, returned similar results. Walker’s disapproval numbers have tipped over the 50 percent mark, while the Senate Democrats have a 38 percent unfavorable rating. This poll also showed a 62 percent favorable view of public employees and 53 percent favorable view of labor unions.

However the opinions expressed by local businesses, organizations and elected officials in the days since Walker’s biennial budget address have been more varied.

In the WPRI poll, about two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) were either somewhat or strongly opposed to reducing aid to local governments and schools while 31 percent were either somewhat or strongly favor it. The Milwaukee Public School districtand its teachers union, the Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association, have come out against Walker’s proposal to cut K12 funding and lift enrollment caps and income limits for choice and charter schools.

“We face a potential loss of $74 million through reductions in state aid, tax levy limits and funding cuts for math, nurses, Advanced Placement programs and children at risk,” MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton said.

He added that the cuts will be devastating, since 80 percent of MPS students live below the federal poverty line, while 20 percent receive special education services and 10 percent speak English as a second language.

“The Governor’s plan causes a disproportionate amount of hurt to our young people,” Thornton said.

In response to the budget address, Thornton and the school board have asked school principals to re-calculate their 2011-12 budgets to reflect the larger shortfall. MPS was already facing a $13.6 million budget hole and was considering trimming arts, music and gym instruction, and closing schools to make up that gap. Now exponentially deeper cuts will be coming.

As for increasing school choice and charter participation, Thornton says he is unsure how it will affect MPS, but added Walker’s budget does nothing to end the “funding flaw.” Currently MPS taxpayers pay more than 1/3 of the cost of each voucher student, while losing the opportunity to count those same students in the district’s state aid formula.  This is something Thornton, the board and most public school reform groups would like to see corrected.

However, local free market-focused think tank the MacIver Institute praises Walker’s education plan, pleased that he has decided to embrace Florida’s educational blueprint. That state has used reading initiatives to ensure students can read before graduating to fourth grade, expanded charter and virtual schools and placed a  greater focus on school choice.

“Florida has set an example of how to improve educational outcomes in a state with an increasingly diverse student body – both financially and culturally,” MacIver analyst Christian D’Andrea said.

On the municipal side, the Waukesha and Ozaukee County boards, both considered among the most conservative counties in the state, have passed resolutions in favor of Walker’s budget. Ozaukee officials predict they will save $1 million with the additional pension contributions by employees, and Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas said “it is time to be honest about what taxpayers can afford. It is also time to bring public sector benefits in line with private sector benefits.”

But Milwaukee County supervisors aren’t as supportive. Supervisor Michael Mayo and Board Chairman Lee Holloway released a joint statementdecrying Walker’s $7 million cut to transit, shifting public transit funding from the dedicated transportation fund to the general fund, and pitting bus funding against education and Medicaid.

“This $7 million cut in State operating assistance, if approved, could force the County to raise bus fares and eliminate all Freeway Flyers (including service to Summerfest and State Fair), late night and early morning service, and numerous route segments. A reduction in paratransit services would remove transit access for individuals with disabilities in Milwaukee County’s southern suburbs and north shore communities,” Chairman Holloway said.

“We’ve been asking for dedicated funding for years. After serving as County Executive for more than eight years, Governor Walker is well aware of this need. But instead of protecting mass transit in the transportation fund, he is removing it. Mass transit is a form of transportation, so why can’t it be protected, too?”

Milwaukee officials, including Mayor Tom Barrett and most alderpersons oppose Walker’s plan to exempt public safety unions from pension and health insurance contributions. They say it is unfair to pit public employees against one another, and that by exempting police and fire fighters, 60 percent of the city’s employment costs are allowed to remain out of reach for cuts.

The Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Farm Bureau Federation are all supportive of Walker’s budget, noting his efforts to reduce the structural deficit, the end to raids on dedicated funds and the freeze on levy rates as a way to grow jobs.

“Wisconsin has not had a truly balanced budget in years. We all know that had to stop somewhere,” Said Jerry Deschane, the Executive VP of the Builders Association. “This budget is necessary to put Wisconsin on firm financial ground so we can focus on creating jobs.”

But freshman Democrat Rep. Jocasta  Zamarripa said the budget is an attack on immigrants, with provisions to end in-state university tuition to undocumented students and the elimination of the FoodShare program for legal immigrants.

“My distric t has always been an immigrant community and I will stand up and fight for the rights of immigrants in our state,” Zamarripa said.

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families sees the budget as a placing a burden on a disproportionate number of children and families. Included in Walker’s proposal are cuts to technical and vocational education, an increase in co-pays, waiting lists and eligibility requirements for child care subsidies and the elimination of the state’s Earned Income Credit for the working poor.

“It is a de-investment in our children and working families,” a spokesperson for the council said.

But if the state is truly broke, it won’t be possible to keep Wisconsin’s current slate of services. One partial solution, according to participants in the WPRI poll, is the “t” word. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed strongly favored raising taxes on those making over $150,000 per year, and about half favored a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax.

As both sides continues to hold press conferences and release opinions, it is the voters who have the final say. What is your opinion on the governor’s budget and where do you stand on this issue?  Share your thoughts.

This story appeared on ThirdCoastDigest.com on March 7, 2011.


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