Wisconsin and Vermont Governors Get Grilled on the Hill

Republicans tried to paint Scott Walker as an expert at solving state budget woes. Democrats portrayed Peter Shumlin as an alternative to Walker. Congress challenged both of their approaches.
by | April 14, 2011

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker testified on Capitol Hill Thursday, the plan was to highlight him as an expert at addressing state's budget woes. The hearing was held by House Oversight Committee, which, along with its subcommittees, has already examined issues like pensions and debt.

Walker, who has waged battle with his state employee unions, was a natural fit to serve as a Republican witness addressing the topic of Thursday's hearing, "State and Municipal Debt: Tough Choices Ahead."

The union battle has made him the most famous governor in the country and a darling among conservatives, and Thursday's hearing would have given him yet another opportunity to make his case for restricting collective bargaining rights on a national stage. That's not how things played out.

Walker -- who curiously described his policies as "progressive" -- used his opening remarks to defend his efforts to increase state employee contributions to pensions and health insurance premiums. Without those changes, massive layoffs might have occurred.  “(I)’d argue it’s a very modest request,” Walker said of his labor policies. He also said his reforms would allow school districts to hire and fire teachers based on merit and performance, as opposed to seniority, the approach favored by unions. “That ultimately is going to make things work better,” Walker said.

Republicans, of course, lobbed softball questions to Walker. But Democrats on the panel didn't pull any punches when questioning the governor. Often, their questions had little to do with the issue of budgets and debt, but that didn't stop them from asking anyway, despite Committee Chair Darrell Issa's efforts to reign them in.

Walker characterized his policies as non-political measures simply designed to improve the state's finances. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, (D-Ohio) repeatedly asked Walker how his plan to require state workers to hold annually union votes -- more frequent than the norm -- would improve the state's finances. Eventually, after Kucinich asked how much money the plan would save Wisconsin, Walker cracked. “It doesn’t save any,” Walker said.

Democrats also hammered Walker on political issues. They insinuated that Walker's attempt to restrict collective bargaining rights was a larger effort to reduce the political power of unions as the 2012 election approaches.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) suggested Walker had been misleading during his campaign since collective bargaining only became Walker's central issue after he won election. Though he tried to dodge Connolly's line of questioning, Walker eventually conceded that he had never explicitly raised the collective bargaining issue on the campaign trail.

Connolly also asked Walker about his reaction to a prank call from an activist posing as contributor David Koch. Walker’s critics have said Walker's tone during the call seemed a little too chummy. Walker testified that he was in a rush and was simply trying to get off the phone.

The most heated exchange came when Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) asked Walker to apologize for the controversial hiring of the the 27-year-old son of a donor to a managerial position in state government that paid $81,500. The son lacks a college degree, has minimal experience and was convicted multiple times for drunk driving. Braley said the topic was germane because of the impact of "cronyism" on state finances.

Walker did not apologize and portrayed himself as unaware of the hiring when it occurred. “If you want to do a political stunt, go ahead," Walker told Braley.

Also testifying was Vermont Gov. Shumlin, whom Democrats invited to the hearing. Shumlin portrayed himself as an alternative to Walker's brand of politics and said in his state, workers were generally willing to accept reasonable concessions to ensure the well-being of the state. “If you want to go after collective bargaining, which I believe helped build this country, just come out and say it,” Shumlin said. “If you want to balance your budget, you bring people in. You have a dialogue.”

In 2009, when Shumlin served as president of the state senate (while Republican Jim Douglas was governor), the state won concessions from employees that included a 3 to 5 percent pay cut over the course of two years, as well as higher pension contributions from employees and later retirement ages.

He repeatedly referred to the Vermont approach as solving problems with “maple syrup” rather than “vinegar." But the committee's majority communications staff sought to undermine Shumlin by pointing out that he has pledged no pay reductions or layoffs of state employees under his governorship, essentially taking credit for the savings achieved by Douglas while being unwilling to consider difficult decisions himself.

Shumlin also took heat from several Republicans for his support of defined benefit retirement plans as opposed to defined contribution plans. The former -- a better deal for employees -- are more costly to employers and force them to bear more investment risk. They have traditionally been the types of plans offered to public sector workers, but some jurisdictions have started shifting in the other direction.

Shumlin insisted that he is confident in the outlook of his state’s pension plans due to its historic 8 to 8.5 percent rate of returns. Many Republicans on the committee express their skepticism that such returns would be likely in the future.

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