MADISON — Some $800 million in contracts, a series of difficult legal hurdles and a struggling economy will not stop Governor-elect Scott Walker from doing what he promised on the campaign trail — stopping the train.
Walker, a Republican, soundly defeated Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the right to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. He takes power Jan. 1.
The Milwaukee County executive ran a strong campaign on a series of checkbook issues, vowing to cut government spending by $300 million, bring 250,000 jobs to Wisconsin and roll back $1.8 billion in tax increases approved last year.
But few issues so caught the public’s attention as Walker’s promise to stop the $810 million Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger rail project, a project officials hope one day will link the Midwest, from Chicago to Minneapolis.
Wisconsin transportation officials earlier this week signed a deal to commit the state to spending all of the $810 million in federal stimulus money on rail project, a significant move because it makes it harder for Walker and other rail opponents to stop it.
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Many political experts thought Walker simply used the train to gin up voters, never truly intending to bring a halt to the project — a move that could end up costing the state millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Some assumed Doyle rushed the contracts through in an effort to tie the governor-elect’s hands.
But Walker reiterated his intention Wednesday to stop the train and said he believed there was a way to do it without the state losing its shirt.
“We have had lawyers coming out of the woodwork on options we can take and we will spend the next couple of days sorting through all of them,” he said.
The train issue could become significant in the early days of Walker’s administration. His victory, along with the Republican takeover of the state Assembly and Senate, is seen by many as a mandate to fix the problems that have plagued Wisconsin for years.
The state faces a $2.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years and is struggling with 7.7 percent unemployment.
Stopping the train provides both opportunity and danger, said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.
“It’s a bit of a mess,” Franklin said. “If he doesn’t stop it, the train hurts him politically. But if he does stop it, he could end up taking a lot of jobs and money out of the state. Welcome to your first rock and a hard place, Gov. Walker.”
But if anyone would takes a political hit, it would be Doyle, said Chris Kliesmet, head of Citizens for Responsible Government, a Milwaukee-based grass roots organization that works to elect conservatives in Wisconsin.
“The fact that they did that in private invalidates the whole deal,” Kliesmet said. “People will know who to blame.”
As Milwaukee County executive, Walker earned a reputation for taking a hard line on budget issues, so it would not be outside the norm for him to fight the train project, even if it meant taking an immediate monetary hit.
Each of his nine consecutive county budgets have held the property tax levy to the previous year’s level, despite cries from his critics that the cut-to-the-bone tactics were destroying the county’s ability to provide public services such as affordable mass transit and clean and safe parks.
The county board overrode his budgets each year to cover the cost of basic services, critics said.
Still, many political insiders believe Walker will be able to find a way to navigate the tricky train issue.
“There is a way to stop the train without it hurting the state,” said Mark Graul, a former GOP campaign manager. “He will have a very favorable Assembly and Senate and the support of most of the people on his side. It can be done.”
That also is the opinion of former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who said Wednesday that Walker will have options to stop the train, including help from Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and fell just a few shy of assuming control of the U.S. Senate.
“There is a whole new (group) in Washington and Wisconsin has some people in powerful positions,” said Thompson, a one-time supporter of the train. “There are ways to stop the train.”