In the wave of his large re-election victory, Gov. Scott Walker continues to talk about requiring drug testing for those seeking unemployment compensation benefits or food stamps.
Pushing those ideas could keep Walker in the national media spotlight: something essential to his hopes to be either the next president or vice president of the United States. Controversial ideas attract more media attention than just dealing with budget issues.
Walker and his legislative allies are also busy talking about reducing taxes. The legislators’ attention seems to have focused, at least for the moment, on the property tax. Polls have shown it is the most unpopular of Wisconsin taxes.
The Republican political tidal wave means 31 states have GOP governors going into 2015. The wave of votes also has given Republicans control of both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
Budgets and taxes will be the key topics in each of the states. Lots of the governors, especially on the Republican side, will be making headlines in their states with promises to reduce spending and taxes. National media will tend to fold those ideas into “round-up” stories in which many states are mentioned but only receive a paragraph or two. Those stories are unlikely to appear on the front pages of newspapers.
The front-page tax stories will be coming from Washington. Will President Obama and the Republican congressional majorities be able to agree on tax changes? That will provide more political drama than action in the state capitals.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, may have a key role in that drama. He is seen as being in line to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Ryan’s role in any tax-reform discussions could propel him to the forefront of potential Republican presidential nominees for 2016. He already has significant name identification after being the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2012.
The idea of drug testing for workers who are laid off and for families seeking food stamps will challenge Walker’s political friends such as the business community and religious leaders.
Would the drug testing be mandatory for all seeking unemployment compensation benefits? Could individual employers opt out of the screening? Could they select which laid-off workers are drug tested? Legal suits are likely if only some workers in a lay-off situation are tested while others are approved for benefits without testing. Age, race, and gender could be issues if only some are tested. There also is the issue of who will pay for the testing.
Questions abound for the idea of drug-testing to get food stamps. Will a whole family be denied food stamps if a single parent tests positive for drugs? Should teenagers in food stamp families also be tested for drug use? Food stamps is a federal program. State-by-state qualifications face stiff legal challenges.
Walker may find that Wisconsin’s religious leaders will oppose the idea of reducing the ability to feed children. The governor’s programs providing a major tax break for families with children in parochial and private schools have made him popular. Many church people like his anti-abortion positions. But ideas that reduce or eliminate food aid for children may be hard to swallow.
Walker’s drug-testing ideas play to the conservative idea that there are taxpayers who pay for government and there are “takers” who get money and benefits from the federal government.
At a minimum the ideas could make him a popular speaker for conservative groups.
Known as the “dean” of the State Capitol correspondents, Matt Pommer covered government in Madison for 36 years. He writes this column for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.