The Occupy movement didn’t start on Wall Street in September 2011. It started on my street in Wisconsin’s capital seven months earlier. At one point, more than 100,000 protesters occupied our state Capitol and square. Why were they there, and how does that story inform America’s current moment?
On Feb. 11, 2011, I introduced a budget-repair bill. By state law, a governor is required to introduce legislation when expenditures dramatically exceed revenue. The biennial budget my administration inherited from a Democratic governor and Legislature didn’t meet the revenue predictions. The state faced a fiscal and economic crisis.
We could have bridged the gap by laying off more than 10,000 government employees. I wanted to shrink state government, but that should be done through managed reform, not indiscriminate pink slips. Another option was cutting billions from Medicaid. Even though I wanted to reduce the number of people dependent on government, you need time to make reforms and encourage economic growth. Cutting billions at the time would have hurt needy children, families and senior citizens. I could have raised taxes, but I promised voters I wouldn’t. A large tax increase would have been a wet blanket on economic recovery.
The only realistic option was to cut state aid to local governments. In 2010 the Democrats in charge of state government did that. I know because I was Milwaukee County executive at the time. My colleagues in local government and I tried to find innovative ways to offset the lost aid, but union contracts precluded reforms. We had to lay off hundreds of employees.
That experience showed me that the only way to survive a big loss of state aid was to give schools and other local governments more tools to manage. That meant changing collective bargaining.