A year after a coterie of new Republican governors swept into the statehouses and put in place aggressive agendas to cut spending and curb union powers, sparking strong backlashes in many places, many of them are adopting decidedly more moderate tones as they begin their sophomore year in office.
The efforts to weaken unions have not ended — witness the recent events in Indianapolis, where the longtime Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, supports making Indiana the first state in the industrial Midwest with so-called right-to-work legislation. But many of the new Republican governors who swept into office last year, taking aim at collective bargaining rights, are striking less confrontational notes as they begin the new year, at least judging by what they have been saying in their State of the State addresses.
A gradually improving economy has eased some of the pressure for steep spending cuts. Many state lawmakers face re-election this year, and in many states they are showing little appetite to face the kind of uproar that greeted efforts to curb collective bargaining rights in states like Ohio and Wisconsin last year. And with a presidential campaign unfolding, some Republicans worry that overreaching at the local level, particularly in swing states, would make it harder for them to win in November.
No state had more tumult last year than Wisconsin. Its governor, Scott Walker, a Republican, signed a law to curb collective bargaining rights for public workers, sparking protests and sit-ins at the State Capitol and now a campaign to have him recalled from office. While he used his State of the State speech on Wednesday to defend the unpopular measures he took last year — telling lawmakers that “we thought more about the next generation than we did about the next election” — the agenda he sketched out for this year was far less controversial. Among its highlights: a call for a law to bring more mining to the state, a task force to eliminate government waste and a literacy program.