There is a kernel of truth in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s claim of a “budget shortfall” of $137 million. But Walker, a Republican, failed to tell the state that less than two weeks into his term as governor, he, with his swollen Republican majorities in the Wisconsin legislature, pushed through $117 million in tax breaks for business allies of the GOP. There is your crisis.
The state Legislature’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau — Wisconsin’s equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office and a refuge for professional expertise and nonpartisanship — warned Walker and the legislature that the measure would create a budget gap. There is your shortfall — and not one resulting from established public employee benefits. Before the tax giveaways, the fiscal agency predicted a surplus for the state.
Now the governor has offered a proposal simple and clear in its intent, and patently dishonest. Walker wants state workers to contribute to their pension fund and is calling for an increase in their payments for medical insurance. Make no mistake: The governor’s “budget repair bill” has little to do with a budget shortfall and everything to do with breaking unions, starting with public employees and then perhaps moving on to others as well.
During his run for governor, Walker had substantial financial support from the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists who have funded various anti-Obama, anti-science, and anti-national government movements. In short, they are opposed to anyone and anything that might diminish their exorbitant profits. And for the Kochs, destroying labor unions is in the top tier of their to-get-rid-of list.
Walker’s own hostility to labor unions is a touchstone of his prior political experience. He is out to realize his every long-held political fantasy, with the help of such allies as the National Association of Manufacturers; Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce; and the Chamber of Commerce. Ever since the 1930s, when national law recognized the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, that gain has been under assault from right-wing ideologues and much of the business community.
Public employees in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, do not have a recognized “right to strike.” But they have a right to a union, with the power to negotiate wages and the conditions of work. That is Walker’s real target, and after he deals with it perhaps he can move to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, devoid of any protections for labor unions, just like Mississippi. Now we can understand Walker’s mantra: “Wisconsin is open for business.” What a “popular,” appealing position! Everyone likes to complain about bureaucrats and teachers — lazy, incompetent and, withal, overpaid. Never mind that studies portray a public work force earning 8 to 15 percent less than similarly situated private sector employees, with the spread even wider among more educated workers.
The governor and his allies like to frame their goal as one that would destroy the special privileges of public employees — as if a Cadillac class of public workers exists in the state. In truth, many public employees secured increased benefits in the 1970s, a time which saw the notion of a “budget crunch” come into play, and the state bargained its way out of salary increases (incidentally, during a time of rising inflation) in exchange for increased employee benefits.
The “February Thaw” brought out an estimated 50,000 or more public employees, teachers, ordinary citizens and students to demonstrate against Walker’s budget repair bill. Montesquieu, the 18th century French political philosopher, wrote about the impact of environment on human and societal behavior. Cold, icy climates, he said, generally dampened human passions, thus lessening chances of “public disorder.” Walker should have offered his legislation during the first three weeks of January, when temperatures hovered just above zero.
Confronting the protests, Walker has framed the issue in stark, simple terms. It is, he said, a battle between “protesters” and “taxpayers.” That followed the obligatory remarks about outside agitators — shades of Mississippi governors in the 1960s. Indeed, the media obliged him by making the increasingly marginalized Jesse Jackson the centerpiece of the protests, thus seeming to confirm Walker’s contention about outside agitators.
After three days of protests, the largest union offered to concede the pension and health insurance payments in exchange for continued recognition of the right to negotiate wage and working conditions. The governor bluntly replied that the time for negotiations had passed, but the truth is that at no time did he offer any negotiation on these matters. If your ideological baggage has no room for workers’ rights, then you will rule by dictate and fiat. Walker’s baggage overflows with hostility for workers.
Walker insists that the budget shortfall requires that state workers, like everyone else in society, must carry their fair share of the burden. But the governor is causing pain to no one else to remedy the situation. Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder offered a $45 billion cost-cutting budget, but he said he would take only $1 in salary as part of the “shared sacrifice.” Meanwhile, Snyder, unlike Walker, has begun negotiations with public employees unions to increase workers’ shares of pension and health care costs.
Wisconsin state revenues are down as statewide unemployment largely reflects the national picture. Furthermore, there is justifiable despair among the unemployed that their jobs may never return. And if they are over 50, there is only a small chance that they ever will have any job comparable to those they held prior to 2007. Little do they understand that companies continue to enjoy swollen revenues, income that inflates the profit side of their ledgers as they reap benefits from “restructuring” — today’s fashionable euphemism for dropping jobs and employees. The business community now sits on the sidelines, hoarding capital, and workers have little work.
The governor claims he has traveled around the state talking to factory workers and others who say they support him because they must spend 25 to 50 percent of their income on health insurance. Well, if that is the case, and such folks are his supporters, perhaps it is time for Walker to rise to their defense and rein in the gouging health insurers.
Budgets are a mysterious maze. Legislators — let alone a citizenry dependent on a largely incompetent, ill-informed media — rarely know the intricacies of a budget and how it may cause a seismic change in public policy. (For examples of the Republicans’ tactics illustrating their belief that democracy is fine for Egypt but another matter for this country, see this.)
Walker himself precipitated the “budget crisis,” necessitating a “repair bill” that gave him and his allies what they really wanted. The governor pursues an agenda backed by the tea party’s financial angels. Public employees and other workers down the line will pay the freight for such folly. The governor lies.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings. He taught constitutional and legal history for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin.