The Occupy movement didn’t start on Wall Street in September 2011. It started seven months earlier on my street in Wisconsin’s capital. At one point, more than 100,000 protesters occupied our Capitol and our square. Why were they there and how does this story inform America’s current moment?
On February 11, 2011, I introduced a budget repair calculation. Under state law, a governor must legislate when expenses dramatically exceed income. The two-year budget my government inherited from a Democratic governor and legislature did not match revenue projections. The state was faced with a financial and economic crisis.
We could have closed the gap by laying off more than 10,000 government employees. I wanted to downsize the state government, but that should be done through managed reform, not random pink slip-ups. Another option was to cut billions from Medicaid. While I wanted to reduce the number of people dependent on the government, it will take time to reform and fuel economic growth. Cutting billions at that time would have harmed needy children, families and seniors. I could have levied taxes, but I promised the voters I wouldn’t. A big tax hike would have been a damp blanket for economic recovery.
The only realistic option was to cut state aid to local governments. In 2010 the democrats responsible for the state government did this. I know because I was the executive director of Milwaukee County at the time. My local government colleagues and I have tried to find innovative ways to make up for lost aid, but union agreements precluded reform. We had to lay off hundreds of employees.
That experience taught me that the only way to survive a huge loss of state aid was to give schools and other local governments more tools to manage. That meant changing collective bargaining.