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What to make of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill"

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Wide White: What to make of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill"

Friday, February 18, 2011

What to make of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill"

By now I'm sure you've heard about the proposed "budget repair bill" proposed by newly-elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. With Republicans holding large majorities in Wisconsin's state senate and assembly, the legislation will likely pass once the 14 runaway senate Democrats return from their holdout in Illinois.

Thousands of people across the state of Wisconsin have turned out in protest. So many teachers have left their classrooms over the last 2 days to protest that school districts across the state - not just in the Madison area - have had to close. There were reports yesterday of senate offices being put on lockdown by capitol police as angry protesters marched through the halls yelling and banging on office windows.

In case you're still confused and wondering what the big hairy deal is, here's a list of the most hotly debated provisions in the bill:
Pension Contributions
Current: State, school, and municipal employees in the Wisconsin Retirement System pay little or nothing towards their pensions.
Proposal: WRS employees would contribute 50% of their annual pension payments.

Health Insurance Contributions
Current: State employees pay 6% of their health insurance premiums.
Proposal: State employees pay 12.6% of their health insurance premiums.

Collective Bargaining
Proposal: Collective bargaining for most public employees would be limited to wages. This includes employees from local teachers to University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff. Wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index unless approved by a referendum. Contracts would have a one-year limit and until a new contract is settled, wages would remain frozen. Additionally, collective bargaining units would have to take annual votes to keep their certification as a union. Employers would not be permitted to collect union dues out of employees' paychecks and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay union dues. Employees working in law enforcement, fire departments, and inspectors would be exempt from these changes.
Again, this is just a summary of the most controversial portions of the new proposal. There are other changes, but they aren't nearly as earth-shaking. Most contentious is the section on collective bargaining. (For those not familiar with the term, "collective bargaining" is the process of negotiations between employers and trade unions in an attempt to reach agreement on wages, working conditions, etc.) Additionally, Walker has promised that in exchange for these concessions there will be no layoffs or even furloughs. He has said that 6,000 workers will need to be laid off if the legislation does not pass.

I considered not posting on this subject at all. There's so much emotion over it on both sides. But it is one of the nation's leading stories and it's so close to home. As I was deciding that I probably would write a post about it, I received this note from a friend:
With all of the hype going on tonight (esp. on FB) over the Walker bill, the first thing I did was go to your blog--was sure you'd have a post with educated food for thought...I've been thinking tonight "Where is Joey White when we need him?!"
I was flattered to say the least. There's nothing more validating for a blogger than to have a comment like that come through. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth my time to say anything on here. Stuff like that keeps me going.

I have friends from both sides of this debate, which is part of why I thought of staying out of it. I'm not interested in a comment war, though my readers usually do a great job of remaining civil. So at the risk of blowing oxygen on the fire, here are my thoughts on this whole mess.

First, nobody wins. Whether or not you agree with collective bargaining, these teachers and other public employees were hired with collective bargaining in place. I know that any time negative (or even seemingly neutral) changes come to my work situation, whether it's changes in pay or benefits or job description, it can be stressful and frustrating. Those supporting the legislation need to recognize that this bill will require some significant financial changes for a number of families. That's meaningful and needs to be acknowledged.

Second, Republicans campaigned on this kind of fiscal belt-tightening. Wisconsin was run over by the Tea Party Express in the last election. The governor in office didn't hold back on the campaign trail and he's only enacting what he's already talked about. I think it's just a shock to people in a state that's been historically liberal that he's actually carrying through with this proposal.

Third, Wisconsin is facing major budget deficits. They're looking at a $137 million budget shortfall through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. They face a shortfall of over $3 billion for the subsequent budget. On top of this, tax revenues have been in decline. Cuts have to be made somewhere. The private sector has been severely affected by the economic downturn and it only makes sense that public employees would be too.

Fourth, unions are antiquated. This is certainly a matter of opinion. Again, I want to be respectful of people who were hired into a situation in which they had unions and are now facing the prospect of drastic adjustments. But I see no reason unions should persist. I had a summer job where I was part of the SEIU and the pay left much to be desired for most of the employees. I dropped my education major in college as I realized that I didn't want someone else determining my salary and other working conditions for me, especially with a salary that, while comfortable, certainly wasn't anywhere near luxurious by any stretch of the imagination. I find it highly ironic that teachers are protesting about how low their pay is already. If that's the case, doesn't that just prove how ineffective the collective bargaining has been? So I'm not a personal fan of unions, which certainly clouds my perspective. But I've heard people argue that teachers and other employees need a chance to weigh in on this since it impacts them so much. I agree with them, but to be honest, they'd have a much more direct say in matters if they had more personal control over their own situation. I'm going to react much differently to a pay cut if my boss meets with me one-on-one and explains the company's situation rather than finding out through a company memo from a CEO I've never met. I could go on, but I don't want to turn this into an argument of "are unions good or bad?" My take is they're a thing of the past, so that impacts the way I view the situation.

Fifth, this whole mess is indicative of the problem with state and federal funding of education. Two of the biggest education debates I've heard over the last decade have been No Child Left Behind - a federal mandate - and education funding from the state level. When local school districts go through budget crises like what Lakeville, MN, is going through, people tend to address the issues with both sides at the table and much less loaded rhetoric. Oh, things can get testy for sure, but when you're at a table with your friends and neighbors, it's easier to either fork over more money for the need in your backyard or cut back because you know your neighbor just can't afford it (and neither can you). You can do a better job of making those determinations at the local level. When these discussions are happening in a capitol building hours away the nature of the discussion changes. Our education system - funding, structure, organization, etc. - is a mess and needs to be fixed. This whole debacle in Wisconsin is just more evidence of that.

Sixth, I find it to be a bit dishonest that law enforcement and fire departments were exempted from this legislation. If collective bargaining is a bad deal for Wisconsin with those who teach us, why not remove it with those who protect us too? I'm not sure why that's such an untouchable group. I have a hunch that politics are involved and if that's the case, it's really sad. I think it sends a mixed message, and one that educators and other state employees have a right to be upset with.

Of course, there's more at stake than education. As noted, this impacts most public employees in Wisconsin. But the focus has been on teachers because they've been walking off the job, which is leaving school districts with no other choice than to cancel classes. This has been forcing parents to take time off from their jobs to watch their kids. I think it's wrong for the teachers to be walking off their jobs, but I'm also sensitive to the passion they have on this issue. I know what it's like to be so passionate about something that you feel you have to do whatever it takes to try to make an impact. Add to that the pressure these people have from their coworkers and the energy that is present as everyone rallies around their cause and I can understand why they're making the decision to walk off the job. I don't like it and I don't agree with it, but I'm sympathetic to it.

So that's my take. Frankly, I think this will make reelection difficult for a number of these Republican politicians. The fact that it's being done so early in the legislative session bodes well for them, but I think there could be repercussions if the changes bear widespread angst in a historically liberal state. That remains to be seen.

Regardless, I'm a fan of Governor Scott Walker for governing the way he said he would. Like it or not, you can't say this comes as a surprise.

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Blogger Kara Jo declared,

Excellent EXCELLENT post, Joey. You articulated the debate extremely well, with sensitivity and acknowledgment of both sides. What you've written has helped me to better understand this complicated issue. Thank you so much for taking the time to post.

2/18/2011 8:34 AM  
Blogger Andrea declared,

I concur with Kara...I found your blog through so many of our mutual friends and I have to say I really appreciate your sensitivity to weighty issues in the political arena, something I've been trying to better get my head around.

As a Wisconsinite...I know plenty of people on the side that are glad for this and equally as many that are not. I definitely agree with your statement on unions. Thanks again!

2/18/2011 9:05 AM  
Blogger Pat Stream declared,

Good one Joey!

2/18/2011 9:10 AM  
Blogger watchman declared,

FB Contrarian moves to the blog:

I have trouble understanding the statement that unions are antiquated. The basic philosophical assumption behind unionization is that the individual does not have the power to protect their own rights. However, a united group of individuals do have that power.

If I am using a screwdriver and I decide that I need a different screwdriver, I just switch. who cares what the screwdriver thinks? If I want my basement dehumidifier 24 hrs a day and never give it a break, I can. If it breaks I'll just get a new one. Who cares what the dehumidifier thinks, it is just a machine.

Labor unions arose in reaction to corporations treating human beings like I treat my inanimate tools. The basic assumption behind unions are human beings are more than machines to be utilized. Workers deserve not only basic rights, but also a cut of the profits.

I guess I fail to see how that could ever be antiquated. Unless, that is, you are convicted that there is no longer any such thing as corporate misbehavior.

Self-advocacy is fine if you have an indispensable talent within a safe job environment. However, most people are just cogs in an institutional machine. So, we need unions.

2/18/2011 9:40 AM  
Blogger Andrew declared,

"The basic philosophical assumption behind unionization is that the individual does not have the power to protect their own rights."

Let's get this clear. What these unions are asking for are not are not 'rights'. They are demanding what they think they are entitled to: specifically - they don't want to have to contribute to their own pensions and would like to continue to pay only 6% of their healthcare premiums. To that I say: welcome to the recession- join the party.

And your argument that unions are just a reaction to the evil private enterprise corporations is mute. The teachers' union we are talking about represents a small cross-section of public employees. Key word: public.

Unions are antiquated. And beyond that, they are the single most harmful virus to a free market system. They artificially raise the labor costs by strong-arming management. This does a few things. It puts management in a no-win scenario. Either the company loses money by conceding to union demands or it loses money because of worker strikes. It increases the cost per employee, so a company can't afford to hire more people. It also increases the net operating costs in general. A company needs to be even more productive with less employees just to remain profitable. And since the unions make it more difficult to fire people, the company is again strong-armed into keeping it's least productive workers.

If you want an example of what I am talking about, look no further than GM. Or the airline industry.

2/18/2011 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Robert B. declared,

A)Private sector unions are alright. B)Government ones are awful.

A) If a private sector union demands too much and wins - then the product is too expensive, will be out competed in the free market and the union loses. GM vs Ford in the last five years is a perfect demonstration of this.

Therefore private sector unions work because many private interests are freely competing. Furthermore, the market as a whole has understood that treating employees well attracts the best talent which is why unions have largely disappeared outside of government.

To say that we are all robots is an outdated assessment of the American workforce as a whole. Even so, not many robots are equal in productivity.

B) Government employee unions are awful. Every pro-union Democrat President before JFK never married unions and government for a reason and FDR was very outspoken in agreeing with this view. There are two reasons why that are evident today in WI.

1) Unions cannot exist in a monopoly and government is the only legal monopoly there is.

Why can't they exist in a monopoly?

Because there is no curb to keep compensation reasonable like competition in the free market does.

When the Teacher's Union demands an x% increase and they get it as always, no one in WI can choose a more reasonably priced product. Send your kids to a private school and pay twice - once for your kids enrollment and once more on your property taxes. OR Opt out of the product and don't pay taxes and see what happens to you. The point is that the consumer has no choice but to pay too much for the product.

2) Collective barganing for gov. unions is an oxymoron because they control both sides of the negotation table.

In a clear conflict of interest gov. unions directly choose who decides their compensation. They vote for and donate to a politician who promises to increase their compensation. The next election, they vote for and donate MORE of their new higher pay from the taxpayer to the same politician. The end result is a cycle where the taxpayer always loses.

Lastly, liberals frequently complain about corporations buying the government. The real numbers show government labor unions far outspending corporations in every election. 400 million to Obama in '08 They just do it in small groups with unique titles.

2/18/2011 10:42 AM  
Blogger Keithslady declared,

I got on the computer just to see what you had to say about this, I'm glad you posted.

I will not join a pro/con union debate. What I am looking for is some clarification as to the whole collective bargaining chip thing. I'm trying to figure out what it is and what it has to do with the budget.

I get the contribution to the pension and health care--a couple of luxuries that were bargained for in exchange for lower wages at some point in the past. Am I right? If so, I understand why there is opposition to what they see as a change in their original agreement. However, given the times and the economic situation and the potential for significant lay-offs this seems very, very reasonable. Our own private business (in some circles that is mentally translated "large monster wealthy corporation sucking the life out of the average American"--I may need to blog about that) enacted a wage freeze for every employee at every level to enable all to keep their jobs. Sometimes you have to work with the way things are, even if it's not what you bargained for from the beginning.

That said, how does the bargaining chip fit into the equation? Is it an ideology move or a budget move? Granted it could be both, but my big question is, does it make a difference in the proposed budget? Or, is it something that would come in to play during contract negotiations at a future date that would impact a future budget?

My reason for asking is: if it makes a difference in the budget then I understand the push to have it addressed and voted on now; but, if it doesn't then I can understand why those in favor of the union's collective bargaining chips would feel that this is a political move that is being "crammed through".

Continuing along that reasoning, if the second scenario is the case then I could also see why those in opposition to that portion of the bill would feel motivated to walk off their jobs or leave the state to avoid voting on it. I'm not saying I agree, but am trying to understand the motives.

The governor said he wanted to the legislators to return so they could talk about it together. But, is this at a place where they could talk? Since the committee has passed it and it was to go to a vote, didn't it have to just go to a vote without debate? Again, I'm not clear how that works. If it IS open to more debate then it would look like political manuevering (sp?) on the part of the WI-turned-IL-politicians.

I'm looking for answers and clarification. After I get that I'll let you know what I think about all of it!

2/18/2011 11:07 AM  
Blogger watchman declared,

I live in a state (MI) that saw our most famous union (UAW) essentially gutted by two things - NAFTA and their own ridiculous greed. Dues were too high, benefits from membership were too low. So, I can say for certain that unions are not always cracked up to be.

Also, corporations and employers are not always monstrous, cigar-smoking robber barons. Toyota has never needed a union for their American production facilities. Why? Because they take care of their employees - fair wages, good benefits.

So, to jump to either extreme seems unbeneficial. Simplistic knee-jerk castigations (like mine!) are better for propaganda than conversations.

My simple point is that unions will never be antiquated until people are treated fairly. Where there is institutional malfeasance, there will be a grassroots reaction. Where there is decent treatment of workers, said reaction will be irrelevant.

2/18/2011 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Patrick declared,

With my wife being a sub in the Hudson school district where the local teachers union staged a "Sick Out", and being conservative leaning ourselves we have all the propaganda from both sides.

I can have sympathy for the teachers this is going to effect them! However when there is not enough money in the budget and the only other option is to lay off 6000 people this seems like a more then fair compromise.

Though I know that this is going to have an impact on people that I know and care about, it doesn’t change my opinion that I don't want Wisconsin to end up like California!

2/18/2011 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous declared,

Unions should never be more powerful than the employer, the people protesting in Wisconsin seem to forget this. They don't run the show, life isn't fair, you live in a state (like most states) that set up a budget on good times and didn't plan for the bad. If I ran my family budget that way we would be on the streets, which is right where we would belong if we were that foolish.

I have a really hard time feeling sorry for individuals who get laid off that decide to work for a company that has a budget that is as bad as Wisconsin's is (and many other states for that matter).



2/18/2011 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Ron declared,

The country needs to face what may come without action. The debates are tiring, and the immature nature of our culture is coming to the surface.

First of all, concerning unions and collective bargaining. Collective bargaining for government workers is counter-intuitive. It should never have been permitted in the first place. What the governer is trying to do correct a decades old problem.

Second, we were once a country that faced hard issues and made tough decisions. Now we're seeing the fruit of decades of entitlements. Our country and the state of Wisconsin are fiscally sick, and instead of courage we have cowards walking out of their jobs.

Joey, you mention the lack of fairness of having firefighters and police exempt for the bill. It's time we start to cope with the fact that not all things are fair, and to be sure, they will eventually be considered.

In the end we're now seeing what happens when we fail to impress that it's good to grow up and that life can be hard.

I'm proud of our governer and embarrassed by the teachers. I wishthe governer would take a cue from Reagan and give the awol teachers short notice that they better be to work on Monday or not worry about showing up after that.

2/18/2011 1:33 PM  
Anonymous anna h declared,

Thanks for writing this post Joey. Several of my family members are teachers, government workers, or retired teachers in Wisconsin, so needless to save I've heard my fair share of their concerns. It was nice to read your recap of the situation because my family tends to be a bit dramatic and liberal.
I'm not sure how I feel about the whole situation because I do feel like what Walker is proposing seems like the right thing, but its hard to hear that my brother-in-law who was planning to retire next year, will no longer by able to due to the cut in pension.
When you compare these adjustments to those people have made and continue to make in corporate jobs, it doesn't seem that far out there.

Anyways, thanks for writing this so I can better understand whats going on.

2/18/2011 2:36 PM  
Anonymous ron declared,

"but its hard to hear that my brother-in-law who was planning to retire next year, will no longer by able to due to the cut in pension."

Sorry, but public policy should not be dictated by how it affects family members or friends. Lots of people in the private sector have had their retirement plans forcibly changed due to financial conditions.

Why should public workers be exempt from what the rest of us must face?

2/18/2011 4:43 PM  
Blogger Andrea declared,

Here are a few thoughts from a teacher:

1. Teaching is an entirely different profession in that it is difficult to prove that you do your job "well". Many have argued that we should be evaluated based on student performance. Since we are a society where education is for ALL, that is ridiculous. You have classrooms full of students who are not learning, and truly it has nothing to do with your skill as an educator. If I were to sit down with my boss, to "negotiate" my own wage, what kind of performance could I point to?

2. All teachers understand the sacrifices that have been made in the "private" sector, but the reality is that the "company" that governs us has not wisely managed their finances. I work for a district that has been financially wise, but when 84% of your revenue comes from the state, and they withhold promised funding for which you have budgeted, you have no choice but to cut employees and cut back on spending. We have ALREADY done this, and now we are being asked to continue doing it...

3. It's not like these teachers could take a day off in order to protest something they believe in. We get holidays off and sick days off and that is it. Also if a teacher takes an unpaid day their personal school is responsible for paying the costs of their benefits and sub. This means the district gets the money twice...once by withholding pay and once by hurting the local school they work for.

2/18/2011 9:45 PM  
Blogger NoOtherName declared,

Very helpful, Joey. Thanks for your straightforward yet sympathetic recap of a very difficult subject.

I agree...there are no easy answers and there are no winners. Times are harder than they've been in a long while (although many times better than what they've been at their worst) and most of us have felt the pain in some form or had to watch a friend or family member go through it.

I have to agree with the Governor's goal, if nothing else. WE CANNOT CONTINUE TO SPEND MONEY THAT WE DO NOT HAVE. To do so is shortsighted and foolish and we cannot avoid the consequences of such actions forever. It's time to get serious about living within our means--on a personal, state, and national level--or accept the inevitable results.

That being said, I appreciated your compassionate acknowledgement that this be difficult for teachers and their families. They will need our continued encouragement, support, and prayers to keep teaching our children with the excellence that they so often do.

2/18/2011 10:37 PM  
Anonymous N.R. declared,

I agree with you.

But I did want to comment on the part about Police / Firefighters. The reason they're untouchable is because their jobs are significantly more dangerous than other public employees, and they perform the most basic of governmental functions: public safety.

Should they be untouchable? Probably not. Should they get a better deal than other public employees? Absolutely.

2/18/2011 11:29 PM  
Blogger nikcollin declared,

Wisconsin Teacher
I agree with others that this post is well done. However, some of your bloggers are clueless on the most significant issue here and that is basic human rights. The rights of every student in Wisconsin to receive a quality education (and Wisconsin provides the best) and the rights of Wisconsin Educators. I personally do not know a single teacher who will not gladly sacrifice some of our salary to support the legislature's efforts to get the State of Wisconsin back on its feet. What I went to Madison to defend yesterday was my right to maintain a fair wage in the future. One blogger suggested that educators are always asking for money and are always getting it. That blogger is misinformed.

2/19/2011 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous declared,

"You have classrooms full of students who are not learning, and truly it has nothing to do with your skill as an educator. "

I can't stop laughing at this unbelievable comment by a teacher.

All classes have a few students that hare a hard time learning. But "full" of students not learning? If you have a class full of students not learning. I would suggest a new career, the problem isn't your students.....unless you are teaching children with developmental disabilities or the worst of the worst inner city. I fear for the education of my 4 children.

2/19/2011 4:12 PM  
Blogger Andrea declared,

I guess I should clarify. When I said students are not learning, I meant in the context of their performance on standardized tests that the state has created. This is the measure by which educators are being judged, and the tests themselves are unfair in that they only offer a single snapshot of a student on any given day.

2/19/2011 11:09 PM  
Blogger kristi noser declared,

Very informative and fair post Joeywhite. Good job.

2/20/2011 6:30 AM  
Blogger Joey declared,

I just want to say thanks to everyone for your input and for just taking the time to read this. I didn't expect this kind of response to this. I'd like to go through all 20 comments and respond but I just don't have the time at the moment to re-read all of them. If you have a question for me specifically, let me know and I'll answer it.

Thanks again everyone. It's been great to see the increasing civility from both sides. In fact, I think the worst mudslinging has really come from outside of Wisconsin. I guess that's not really a surprise...

2/20/2011 9:58 PM  

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