This is a tale of four state capitols, not two. It involves politicians in Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. What they achieve or fail to achieve in the next two years may be the test of what America really wants and where this country is going in the next ten years.
Leading the quartet is Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker, elected last November on a campaign pledge of campaign frugality. Walker has become the point man for a group of Republican governors who are testing how much public support there is for shrinking benefits and collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The success or failure of Walker could determine whether other governors will be able to curtail long standing statutory and contractual rights enjoyed by unions for decades. At the same time as he is winning applause from Tea Party supporters around the country, Walker may be the catalyst to wake up Democratic-leaning, but lethargic union leaders, who were on the sidelines during last years Republican tsunami.
Since last November, Republican politicians in Washington and around the country have been claiming that their big victories were a mandate for change. The question is, what does change mean and how far does a mandate go? Did the voters demand that union workers be stripped of their powers to bargain, or did they just say it's time for the public sector to share some of the pain that the private sector taxpayers have been feeling for years?
The same goes for New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie. Currently a folk hero for the anti-large government movement, Christie will have to prove that tough rhetoric equals less government. If he can't translate his teacher-union bashing and trickle-down cuts into lower local taxes and slimmer government, all the pro-Christie hype will evaporate by 2012.
With the Sarah Palin phenomenon fading, the Republican Party is desperately looking for one person who can galvanize the party and give them a real alternative to President Barack Obama in next year's election.
Governor Christie says he isn't a candidate right now for the White House, but his future as a national candidate will be decided by whether the New Jersey voters think he has accomplished what he promised. If his popularity ratings drop and the Democrats can find the right candidate to oppose him, Christie could turn out to be a one-term wonder.
New York State's Governor Andrew Cuomo presents a different scenario to the nation's voters. He has told New Yorkers the absolute truth about the state's finances, its flagging integrity and the need for restraint at all levels of government. Rather than take the New Jersey route, Cuomo has given a number of private sector panels the chance to make recommendations on how to slash programs, but with a twist.
Cuomo has told his panels how far their cuts must go and if they fail to reach that number he will have the ability to close the gaps with his own recommendations on what to cut. Cuomo continues to enjoy sky-high popularity ratings, so the state legislature will not enjoy all of their previously held powers to completely redo the new state budget.
The fourth alternative to how to handle budget crises is Connecticut's newly elected Governor Dan Malloy. Rather than union bashing or the let's make a deal approach, Malloy has given the state legislature a brutally honest list of tax increases and program cuts and told them to make their choices. He has explained the problem in simple terms and left it to his legislature to come up with the solution.
So at this point in time the country now has before it four options on how to make state government better and more fiscally sound. While the U.S. Congress debates and debates on how to avoid shutdowns and which programs cost too much, the real laboratory for what the future holds is in the capitol cities of Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Whatever works in Madison, Trenton, Albany or Hartford, may be the key to America's fiscal future.
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