As many states grapple with the daunting task of balancing severely out of balance budgets, many governors across the country are looking for large pots of money to rescue their states’ finances.  While California’s fiscal crisis has gotten most of the public attention, the battle currently underway in Wisconsin represents not just a debate about how to reform one’s budget, but a more fundamental debate about the relationship between a state and its workers as well as the institutions of government themselves. 

The heart of the debate this week in Wisconsin is a proposal by newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker that would end the collective bargaining rights of most state employees including teachers and correctional workers.  In order to close the state’s budget gap, these employees would be required to make increased pension and health care contributions.

While Wisconsin labor groups have signaled a willingness to alter their current contributions in light of the fiscal situation, they are shocked by the legislative language that would eliminate the ability of workers to negotiate anything with the state other than salary in future contracts.  In this, they see motivations beyond simply fixing the budget shortfall.  Rather, they see an attempt by the Governor to attack and destroy the labor movement itself

For labor supporters, Republicans long before Walker have looked for opportunities to weaken the influence of teachers and other state employees.  However, in more robust economic times such attacks had less likelihood of being successful.  With states now hurting, these workers have become a convenient target for Walker and others looking for dollars to cut.  Should Walker’s budget repair legislation succeed, however, it will have ramifications that are more than fiscal in nature.  It will dramatically strengthen the hand of the executive in its relation to state employees.

Further indications of power consolidation within the governor’s mansion come through a proposal to alter the way in which the state funds and administers Medicaid.  Walker’s proposal would take powers over Medicaid that traditionally have rested in the legislature—determining eligibility, benefit levels, and premiums—and move them to the Department of Health Services.  As with the fight over public employee unions, the Medicaid proposal is being defined by Walker as necessary in light of the state’s fiscal woes. 

With Medicaid shortfalls potentially reaching close to $2 billion over the next two years, the governor is proposing to streamline the process of making cuts.  Like the fight over state employee contributions, this shift will bolster the power of the governor.

Finally, legislation is advancing through the state legislature that would give the governor more of a role to play in the regulatory and administrative powers of state agencies.  Currently, after an agency proposes an implementing rule or regulation, it goes before the legislature for review.  Under Walker’s plan, the governor would have the power to sign off on such rules before they reach the legislature.  Of particular importance here is that Wisconsin has several agencies that are headed not by appointees of the governor, but by independently elected leaders. 

Thus, previous governors had little control over the flow of regulations coming out of these departments.  The Department of Public Instruction which oversees the state’s school system is a notable example. 

These attempts at consolidating power in the governors’ office have been taking place in a political context very favorable to Walker.  As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that he is attempting such moves.  All executives try to maximize their power.  In November’s election both houses of the state legislature switched from Democratic to Republican control.  Thus, there is a new class of members who came into power on Walker’s coattails.  One difference with recent incoming classes, however, is the sheer size of the freshman cohort.  Among the 57 members of the Republican caucus in the State Assembly, 24 are freshmen.  Similarly, on the Senate side, of the 19 Republicans, 6 are freshmen.  With any large class of new members there is an absence of legislating history and experience.  There are fewer members who have been working on their own policies and agenda who might act as a check or source of competing power against the executive. 

When these new members are in almost universal agreement with their fellow partisan in the governor’s office, the result is a rapid, but some would argue dangerous, legislative process.  Deliberation is sacrificed as bills are quickly dispatched.  When legislatures fail to participate as equal players in policy making, at some point in the future their members usually come to regret their behavior.  Simply stated, once power is given away, it is almost impossible to take back.

Wisconsin already has one of the country’s most powerful governors by virtue of the constitutional powers granted to the office.  Walker, like his predecessors for example, possesses arguably the most expansive line item veto authority in the country.  Also, Wisconsin governors are not term limited, reducing turnover in an already powerful office.

The fiscal situation of Wisconsin, like many states, is no doubt distressing.  What is potentially even more disturbing is the broadening imbalance of power developing between the state legislature and the governor.  The fact that the legislature is a willing participant in this abdication of authority is not only ironic, but likely to be regretted. 

What is happening in Wisconsin should also be of interest to those well beyond the borders of the Badger State. 

If governors across the country use the current fiscal crisis to expand and consolidate their powers the delicate balance between our institutions of government will be weakened.