Conservatives are rightly excited by newly elected Republican governors who are showing the way to fiscal sanity in their states and giving us all hope that it is possible in the federal government too.
Chris Christie in New Jersey, Bob O’Donnell in Virginia, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Rick Scott in Florida—all have challenged the status quo, big-government elites in their states.
Now add the name Scott Walker, the new Republican governor of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin faces an immediate shortfall this fiscal year of $137 million, and a looming two-year deficit projected at $3.6 billion. Walker promised during last year’s campaign that he would balance the state budget by challenging the power of the public employee unions.
While federal labor law governs the rights of workers in private workplaces, Wisconsin law governs the labor law applicable to its government workers.
The governor’s reform proposal would repeal collective bargaining rights for state workers except as to wages, and then restrict any wage increase to a maximum of the real cost of living. Walker also proposes to limit labor contracts to one year. Only safety service employees (police and fire) would continue to have collective bargaining rights. Public employers would no longer collect union dues from public employees.
Currently, 175,000 public employees in Wisconsin (teachers and state and local government workers) enjoy high salaries, “free” guaranteed pension benefits, and “free” health care while working and in retirement.
To balance the budget, Walker does not want to lay off employees. To avoid firing 6,000 state employees to help balance the budget, he wants the employees to start paying 5.8% of their salaries toward their pensions and 12.6% toward their health care plans.
Last December, the Wisconsin Senate failed by one vote to pass a new labor agreement for state workers in the waning days of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration. State workers are working without a contract. Walker seized the opportunity to challenge the unions.
Will he succeed? Teachers have called in sick and demonstrated at the state capitol. The governor has indicated he will call out the Wisconsin National Guard if state prison guards walk off the job, as they have threatened to do. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
The state legislature will have to approve Walker’s proposals. Republicans control the Assembly 60-38-1 and the Senate 19-14. Will the majority act to approve Walker’s reform?
They should. The public supports the governor. Wisconsin has been a liberal state. No longer. The price of liberalism is unaffordable.
Wisconsin was the first state (in 1959) to allow public employee collective bargaining. The result has been the creation of a privileged class of workers who are paid more than comparable positions in the private economy, whose benefits are guaranteed by the private workers who make less doing similar work, and who can never be fired or demoted no matter the quality of their work.
How did this happen? Politics. The unions used member dues to support candidates friendly to the union and oppose those who weren’t. The result at contract negotiation time was that the union leaders sitting down to “bargain” with elected officials beholden to the unions for their reelection cash. The unions won the “bargain.” The taxpaying public got the bill.
Now the public employee unions are fighting mad. “He is not trying to balance a budget, he is trying to destroy unions in this state,” said Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin. “He is trying to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state. Or a right-to-work-for-less state.”
What Walker is trying to do is roll back decades of special privilege and trending toward insolvency. Other governors are challenging the power of the public employee unions (and getting reams of publicity for their efforts), but no governor has gone as far to return fiscal sanity to his state as Walker.