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If Gov. Scott Walker prevails, will Wisconsin look more like the South?

The South's small-government, pro-business, boot-strap ideals are drawing jobs to states in the region. That economic model may hold appeal for Wisconsin's Scott Walker and other Northern GOP governors. But it also has a dark side.

By Staff writer / March 1, 2011

Gov. Scott Walker addresses the media during a news conference at Colgan Air Services at the La Crosse Municipal Airport in La Crosse, Wis. on Monday, Feb. 28.

Erik Daily/La Crosse Tribune/AP

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Atlanta

If Gov. Scott Walker (R) has his way in the labor dispute that has rocked Wisconsin for two weeks, will his state in effect look a lot more like those in the South?

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Their economies marked by weak unions, a business-friendly climate, a thin social safety net, and lower taxes, Southern states may be an inspiration to some Northern politicians looking to grow jobs and dig out of budgetary holes.

Governors around the United States are "really under tremendous pressure ... to transform their economies," said Bruce Katz, director of metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, at a recent symposium. Collectively, states' deficits for the next fiscal year add up to $125 billion, forcing at least 41 states to propose cuts in education. Help from the federal government is probably not on the way, either, with Congress having no appetite for another stimulus bill or a bailout.

That leaves financially strapped states looking around for other solutions, and their gaze may be fastening on what some economists call the South's "moonlight and magnolias" strategy. Under that economic construct, the focus is on creating a competitive place to locate businesses, so the premium is on investments in benefits for corporations and on keeping wages relatively low. Worker rights, social services, even education take a back seat to "job creators" under this model – which critics denounce as a race to the bottom.

"Members of the modern Republican Party, and the 'Tea Party movement' in particular, gravitate naturally toward models of growth that treat public programs and investments as mere obstacles in the path of dynamic corporate 'job creators,' '' writes Ed Kilgore, a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, in The New Republic this week. "Many look South in admiration." But "if Wisconsin and other states – not to mention the country as a whole – end up adopting these atavistic economic ideals," warns Mr. Kilgore, "they will simply begin to resemble the dysfunctional Old South societies that spawned them in the first place."

Others note, though, that people are voting with their feet. Northerners – including African-Americans – have decamped in a massive migration to the South during the past two decades, evidently perceiving that's where the jobs are going.

"When you talk about folks in New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin, there's not a lot of optimism about the future right now," says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University, in South Carolina. "They're not as optimistic as someone living in Atlanta."

Of the top 10 states with the smallest share of public employees eligible for collective bargaining, nine are in the South. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker is trying to curtail unions' collective bargaining rights; other states seek steep concessions in pay and benefits from public employee unions to close budget gaps and make their states more competitive.

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