Refocusing Governance in Wisconsin

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2009

Back in 1987 the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation provided a $2.8 million startup grant to launch the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a think tank focused on the economic and social health of its home state. The institute published a steady stream of research reports on education problems, the business environment, state pension imbalances, and other concerns.

Then in 2009 and 2010, WPRI rang alarms over runaway government-employee costs and a state budget deficit heading past $3.6 billion. At that time, Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature as well as the governorship. The 2010 election, though, swept in a Republican governor and flipped control of both the Assembly and state Senate.

Anticipating this power shift, the Bradley Foundation had given the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute a million-dollar grant in 2009 (on top of its normal $400,000 in annual support) to produce a special policy document entitled Refocus Wisconsin. “We saw how much the Reagan administration relied on the Heritage Foundation and how much Mayor Rudy Giuliani relied on the Manhattan Institute in New York City,” said Bradley president Michael Grebe. “We wanted to support a project that provided a similar level of policy assistance to our own governor and lawmakers.” The 154-page publication offered information and policy recommendations on budgeting, taxes, public pensions, and education. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and the MacIver Institute, also Bradley grant recipients, offered additional ideas for improving governance in their home state.

When Governor Scott Walker and the new legislative class took office in 2011, they enacted a Budget Repair Bill that dramatically reformed state government—requiring public employees to contribute to their pensions for the first time, trimming the power of public-employee unions (whose membership dropped by half after state and local employees including public-school teachers were allowed to opt out), establishing controls on medical costs, and so forth. After protests, work refusals, legislators going fugitive, and a recall vote on the governor (which he won with a larger percentage of the vote than in his initial election), the reforms stuck, and immediately became an influence on other states.

In his capacity as a private citizen, not a foundation CEO, Grebe chaired Governor Walker’s re-election campaign in 2014. Walker was returned to office, and the GOP majorities in both state houses were enlarged.