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Scott Walker Takes A National Risk With State Education Cuts

His proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin system could be problematic for Walker's potential presidential campaign.
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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s new budget proposal reads like a modern day Republican manifesto: reductions in property taxes, expansion of school vouchers, elimination of Common Core and implementation of drug testing for food stamp recipients.

It’s a political document suitable for any conservative national presidential candidate and sure to receive enthusiastic applause from most conservative bastions in Republican primary states.

His proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin system, however, could be more problematic for Walker. At home, it’s highly controversial, receiving aggressive opposition from the students of the 26 two- and four-year universities and their 39,000 employees. Nationally, it is sure to be scrutinized and quite probably turned into an aggressive line of attack against the governor.

The faculty at the largest school in the state, UW-Madison, has already unanimously passed a resolution saying the cuts will “diminish the quality, breadth and access to education for Wisconsin residents,” and Chancellor Rebecca Blank called the cuts “too large for the system to absorb.”

The cuts amount to 13 percent of the system’s budget and are the largest in the system’s history in a long line of budget cuts. They are responsible for making up close to half of the state's $650 million budget gap over the next two years. It’s also tied to a two-year extension of a tuition freeze along with efforts to give the universities more authority over its budget.

When Walker detailed his proposal before the state legislature Tuesday night, he called it “bold.”

“As the father of a UW student, I have a real interest in the success of our state system and I believe this will make the University of Wisconsin stronger in the years to come,” Walker said.

For a controversial proposal that still has a long way to go before being approved by the legislature, risky might be a better word than bold to describe it as Walker prepares to embark on a national campaign.

National pollster Fred Yang with the Hart Research Group said Walker’s proposal is “politically risky, but it’s also important for his brand.”

“His thing is ‘I’m the person who has the courage to make important and needed changes and reforms,'” Yang said, adding that it’s part of Walker’s underpinning message is that he does what “other people are afraid to do.”

Walker made a national name for himself in 2011 with what’s called Act 10 in Wisconsin. It gutted public sector unions in an effort to close the state’s budget deficit. Robust protests and a recall election ensued. Ultimately, Walker won and the entire ordeal was extremely beneficial for him, helping to connect him with national donors and increase his national profile. With his reelection in 2014, Walker has now won three elections in four years in a blue state.

“In my lifetime, he’s the only Republican who has a trophy,” conservative Iowa-based syndicated talk show host Steve Deace said. “He dismantled (the public sector unions) a Democratic pillar.”

Walker calls his higher education cuts “Act 10 for the UW.”

“If I’m a Democrat, my first commercial is Walker cuts $300 million to education but gives $200 million to the NBA.”

As Walker campaigns in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, the first three early primary states, this new version of Act 10, plays into his political persona. He can walk into a room full of rural conservatives and talk about how he tried to bring those who sit at the top of the collegiate ivory tower back down to earth. But with it comes some big challenges.

For one, in the same budget proposal, Walker nearly cancels out his university cuts with a $220 million grant to build a new NBA stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks, another component receiving initial opposition in the state even though Walker pledges that the state will make its money back.

Deace said Walker is handing free red meat over to the Democrats.

“If I’m a Democrat, my first commercial is Walker cuts $300 million to education but gives $200 million to the NBA,” Deace said. “I don’t understand who tells these guys that’s a winning message.”

Democratic operatives are already picking apart Walkers plan.

“You’ve got his ongoing efforts to injure public education in Wisconsin,” Ben Ray, spokesperson for the Democratic political research group American Bridge, said. “We will obviously work to hold him accountable on this.”

But Mark Graul, a Republican operative in Wisconsin said initiatives like the UW one is why Walker topped the latest poll of Republican candidates in Iowa.

“The reason why Scott Walker is considered a leading presidential candidate is because he’s been willing to take some risks and make some bold reforms,” Graul said. “People … like that you make decisions and stand by your decisions, even if you don’t agree with it.”