Two neighboring states, Minnesota and Wisconsin share a common border, blistery winters and "until recently a liberal populist tradition stretching back a century," according to a New York Times article. Today the states are microcosms of two entirely distinct governing philosophies - one conservative and the other unabashedly liberal.
As one recalls, conservative Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin gained national notoriety by busting the state's public unions and approving massive tax cuts for the wealthy upon entering office. While Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, raised taxes on the wealthy in Minnesota and used the revenues to invest in the state's educational system.
"Dayton has a majority Democratic legislature just as Walker has a Republican controlled legislature, bolstering the ongoing policy experiment in their states," according to Eleanor Clift writing in the Daily Beast. How have the state's fared under their respective governors since each was elected in 2010?
In the aftermath of the Great Recession both states faced dire straits, as did the country as a whole. According to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel: "At its most dire, Wisconsin's unemployment rate was 9.2% and the state was facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit. At the same time, Minnesota was dealing with 8.3% unemployment and a $2.6 billion deficit." Wisconsin then elected a conservative Republican and Minnesota elected a liberal Democrat in 2010 and their paths soon diverged!
Wisconsin's governor responded by giving the rich over a billion dollars in tax cuts and cutting school funding more than any other state. Minnesota's Democratic governor raised taxes on the rich by $2.1 billion and invested $900 million in schools. The results: today Minnesota has a $200 billion economic surplus and the highest economic confidence in the country, based on a Gallup Poll.
Wisconsin, by state law, has to balance it's budget, but in November of 2014 Walker's own Department of Administration projected a $2.2 billion shortfall for 2015-17. However, he managed to balance the budget with draconian cuts to the state's vaunted university system and other accounting gimmicks, such as skipping a May debt repayment of over $100 million dollars.
"Since 2011, Minnesota has been doing quite well for itself. The state has created more than 170,000 jobs, according to the Huffington Post. Its unemployment rate stands at 3.6% - the fifth-lowest in the country, and far below the nationwide rate of 5.7% - and the state government boasts a budget surplus of $1 billion. Forbes considers Minnesota one of the top 10 in the country for business."
"The state's minimum wage is set to increase to $9.50 by 2016, and last year Dayton signed a sweeping bill strengthening protections for women in the workplace and guaranteeing equal pay. Other progressive measures have included a tuition freeze at public universities and two-year colleges, increased spending on public education and increased unionization, according to Mother Jones."
"As Minnesota has enjoyed economic success, observers have often compared the state's situation to that of its neighbor Wisconsin. Republican Scott Walker also won the governor's mansion in Wisconsin in 2010, but pursued a deeply conservative agenda for managing the economy. He made huge spending cuts to vital services ranging from education to health care. He reduced taxes on the wealthy, and got rid of tax credits for low-wage earners."
"By a number of measures, Wisconsin hasn't fared as well as Minnesota. As the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal reports, Wisconsin's job growth has been among the worst in the region, and income growth is one of the worst in the country. It has a higher unemployment rate than Minnesota. And the budget is in bad shape."
One can argue that Minnesota enjoys structural advantages that Wisconsin doesn't have, such as a more educated, cosmopolitan workforce and a more industrialized economy than Wisconsin, which is largely agrarian.
However, conservative ideologues would agree that it is not supposed to work this way! According to the supply-siders, tax cuts for the wealthy eventually trickle down to the working class, except in reality the "eventually" never arrives. And what do the supply-siders who support Walker want now more than anything -- more time for his policies to work! As Richard Perlstein knowingly opined in the Huffington Post: "Conservatism never fails. It is only failed."
Speaking of conservative governors across the country, David Madland, author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn't Work Without a Strong Middle Class , said: "It seems like they've been backed into a corner and are just going forward with pure ideology and discounting any contradictory evidence."
Political scientist Lawrence R. Jacobs put it in more polite academic terms:
"Evidence and common sense should matter more in our overheated political debates. The lesson from the upper Midwest is that rigid anti-tax dogma fails to deliver a convincing optimistic vision that widens economic opportunity and security. The excesses of liberalism may lurk, but Minnesota is building a modern progressivism that plows a hopeful path."
Well stated! The states are said to be laboratories of democracy. In this case, Wisconsin is looking more and more like the laboratory where the kindly Dr. Jekyll transformed into the infamous Mr. Hyde.