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Change!

Local Issues, Politics

Well, sportsfans, the other shoe has dropped and it's a 13-EEEE. Gov. Walker's proposed biennial budget bill is certainly a doozey. Already the gored oxen are screaming, predicting doom, gloom and disaster. One is reminded, however, that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Many on the left and even considerable folks on the other side voted in 2008 for Barack Obama for president. Some because he was a liberal, some because of his race but many because he ran on a platform of Change--change from the status quo with which many were uncomfortable. They weren't sure exactly what Change meant, but felt that something was awry in government and were willing to vote for "anything else."

Many of those reasonably moderate folks are disappointed in what they got, which was an orgy of deficit spending, grindingly brutal unemployment (Yes, I know; it's Bush's fault.), and a monstrous, problematic and controversial government health care program.

I think that disappointment and lingering unease with runaway "fix-it-all" government carried over into the 2010 election which gave us a Republican state government replacing the prior Democratic hegemony. Scott Walker was fairly easily elected as someone who would shake things up, with a reputation for staunch, unblinking fiscal conservatism. Folks felt this was what we needed in Wisconsin. Well, we got it.

I'm not going to go through the proposed budget item by item. Actually, our often-maligned (by me) daily newspaper did an admirable job in the Wednesday (March 2) edition of summarizing its contents and implications. As the newspaper noted, it certainly shakes things up. But, what did you expect? Scott Walker simply has done what he said he would do: balance (nearly) the state budget for the first time in recent memory.

The screaming is fully understandable. Many governmental elements are significantly impacted, including a number of sacred cows. The problem is for years--decades--we have been boiling the frog. Unboiling him is not easy. Bureaucracies created ostensibly to "fix" problems have been layered one on top of another, all with constituencies, manned by public sector union members and fully committed to the basic two rules of the bureaucracy: 1) Preserve the bureaucracy and 2) Expand the bureaucracy. (There is no third rule.) They will not go down easily, but go down they must if we are going to stuff the government tiger back in his cage.

Public sector unions are a very large part of the problem. These are the folks that staff the bureaucracies, including education which is a huge bureaucracy. I have noted previously that public sector unions are a different breed from unions in general. Their existence makes no logical sense and constitutes a fiscal nightmare. Private unions negotiate with an employer who holds the survival and success of the company uppermost and negotiates tough to limit payroll and benefit costs to sustainable levels. It's typically a close-to-even fight, sometimes temporarily favoring one side or the other.

Public sector unions collect huge sums of money in dues which they spend supporting politicians, mainly Democrats by at least a 10-1 ratio. A number of Democratic legislators owe a major portion of their campaign funding to these unions. (I guess a few Republicans get supported, but very few and mostly RINO's.) At the local level, party affiliations get blurred so the largesse goes to candidates sympathetic to the union(s). The effect is that contract negotiations are between powerful union representation and politicians beholden to the public sector unions for their jobs. Now the fight is uneven.

The result has been wage and benefit excesses that severely strain budgets at all levels of government. Public sector unions have acquired great power and accumulated large membership because of their success in negotiating attractive wage and benefit packages. Thus we have created the proverbial 600-pound tiger, out of his cage and devouring taxpayer money at an ever-increasing clip.

The party line being played out in the Madison protests is that it's all about workers' rights--more specifically union workers--and the middle class. In truth, it's all about union power and sustenance. Walker's proposals will substantially curtail the influence and income of the several public sector unions, mainly the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SIEU), along with the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) teachers' unions. By way of illustration, the compensation of the heads of these unions is as follows.

  • AFSCME head Gerald McEntee: $480,000, having grown steadily at 4% per year
  • SIEU head Mary Kay Henry: over $306,000
  • NEA head Dennis Van Roekel: nearly $400,000
  • AFT head Randi Weingarten: $428,284

The assets of these unions ranges from $78 million (AFSCME) to $216 million (NEA). They have as many as 31 employees earning over $200,000 per year (NEA).

(These data are from the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 3, 2011.)

These unions contribute huge sums to overwhelmingly Democratic election campaigns by as much as 99% over Republican. The unholy alliance is obvious. As Marquette Professor Walter Farrell used to always say, "Follow the money." And that is what is at stake here.

In politics, nothing is as it seems. The hue and cry over "workers' rights" is nothing but a smokescreen for union preservation and political benefit. The demonstrators, while largely sincere, are simply dupes of the entrenched union/political gravy train.

Governor Walker's budget is the first real attempt to deal with the fiscal problems of this state in a realistic and honest manner. It is undeniably ugly, but that is what it will take to merely begin to disassemble the monstrous fiscal House that Jack Built that has become Wisconsin's fiscal and bureaucratic ravenous 600-pound tiger. Scott Walker is the first politician to try to stuff that baby back in his cage. The proposed budget is undoubtedly not perfect or even universally fair, but it is a responsible start. Legislative debate, hopefully bipartisan if they ever come back, will help to iron out some of the kinks.

Walker deserves a lot of credit for having the guts to take on the tiger, the first executive in my memory to do so. Sadly, I doubt that he'll get it.

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