Friday, June 1, 2012

Politics: The New Spectator Sport in Wisconsin

Wisconsin, once the state of cheeseheads and the Pack, the Badgers and Smash Mouth Football, Marquette and basketball, and Milwaukee and occassionally the Brewers.

Wisconsin, now the state of a blood sport much greater in intensity: politics.

Wisconsin, the state which was once above politics, has discovered raw politics with a vengeance.

Tuesday, June 5 is the next date in a two year saga of conservative primacy in Wisconsin. Liberals see the paradigm loss of Wisconsin, the center of the Progressive Movement for 110 years. The Progressive Magazine has been published in Madison, Wisconsin since 1909. The University of Wisconsin has consistently been one of the most liberal campuses in America. The political fabric of the state had been center-left for a century. Democrats have won Wisconsin in every Presidential election since 1988, with President Obama carrying the state by 14% in 2008.

That was then; this is now.

Will Wisconsin, among the bluest of blue states, turn red?

Just as 2008 witnessed a Democratic landslide nationally, the 2010 backlash gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives, most state houses and governorships. The Midwest was a redout for Republicans.

Governor Walker inherited a $3.6 billion budget deficit and rising taxes. He proved you can balance the budget and lower taxes in two years. He did so by essentially striping the public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights.

The public employee unions initially rejected his proposal that the public employees contribute 5.8% of their salaries to their pensions and 12.6% to health insurance.

They had been contributing nothing.

The governor’s response was a union busting measure guised as fiscal reform. The unions belatedly agreed to the deductions, but it was too late. The legislative proposals included not only these payroll deductions, but a ban on collective bargaining for salary increases that exceed inflation. More significantly, the statute was a limited right to work statute. The state would no longer deduct union dues from a member’s paycheck unless the employee annually agreed to the dues deduction. The statute was strategically designed to exclude police and fire.

The unions “went to the mattresses” on the Republican legislation. They engaged in a sit-in at the capitol, Democratic senators fled to Illinois, unsuccessfully mounted a campaign to deny reelection to a sitting conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court judge, again unsuccessfully attempted to recall Republican state senators, and have now striving to recall Governor Walker.

And they are pleading for a return to “civility” in Wisconsin politics.

The reforms have been effective for Wisconsin government, but the effects of the act have been draconian on public employee union membership and fisc.

Immediate benefits were felt in health insurance costs. Most school districts obtained their health insurance through the WEA Trust, owned by the Wisconsin Education Association. Through the prospect of competitive bidding, Appleton, Wisconsin immediately reaped a $3.1 million savings.

The state balanced its budget. Cities and school districts felt immediate budgetary relief.

Teacher layoffs were minimal, while property tax rates dipped.

Membership in AFSCME fell over 50% from 62,818 to 28,745. Membership in the teachers union dropped from 17,000 to 11,000. Union membership will further decrease as existing contracts expire.

Obviously, the revenue stream to the unions will cripple their political power in future elections. No longer will membership dues decide elections. That is the real issue in Wisconsin.

Governor Walker has crafted a roadmap for busting the public employee unions. If it catches on like a prairie fire, the funding basis of the Democratic Party will collapse, both nationally and at the state and local level. No other source of funds, trial lawyers, Hollywood, George Soros, Wall Street, or Indian tribes, match the combined funds of the unions. Often 1/3 of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are members of the teachers unions.

The state has been bitterly split as in a civil war. 25 reporters for the Gannett Newspapers signed petitions to recall the governor, thereby dropping the mask of journalistic independence. 29 circuit judges signed similar petitions, also raising the questions of an impartial judiciary. The University of Wisconsin’s President Charles Van Hise in 1904 promulgated the Wisconsin Idea, under which the state university would serve the greater good of the state. Several doctors at the University of Wisconsin Medical School misconstrued the mission. Eleven doctors and 9 residents signed “sick notes” excusing teachers from employment when they staged the capitol sit-ins against the Governor.

Yet, the national response has been interesting. President Obama, an otherwise peripatetic campaigner, has treated Wisconsin as fly-over country, between fund raising trips to California and campaigning in Ohio. The Democratic National Committee has refused to contribute $500,000 to the recall campaign. Conservatives have poured about $30 million into Governor Walker’s campaign. Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee has barely raised $4 million.

The unions can’t win this battle. Even if recall Governor Walker on Tuesday, they cannot win.

They supported Kathleen Falk, former manager of Dane County (Madison) in the Democratic primary with $4.5 million. She was the only major candidate who pledged to repeal the Walker acts. She lost to Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, who saw the Milwaukee School District save $19 million under the Walker reforms. He instead turned the campaign into “jobs;” Who can bring jobs to Wisconsin. Voters know the answer to that question, looking at job losses in Milwaukee. Wisconsin residents may be cheeseheads, but they are not knuckleheads.

Governor Walker in the uncontested Republican primary received 680,000 votes, which exceeded the total of the top five Democratic candidates.

The unions cannot win because of the economic tide running against their contracts, health insurance, and pension plans. The status quo is economically unsustainable.
Even California at some point will say : “No mas.”

Polls favor Governor Walker, although it will depend on which side getting the vote out. The unions are employing their usual intensive ground campaign, especially in their big city strongholds. It may not be enough.

If the Governor wins big on Tuesday, then Wisconsin will be in play in November. If President Obama loses Wisconsin, the election will be a Romney landslide.

It’s still the economy, stupid.

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