By Scott St. Clair
It didn’t take long for Wisconsin taxpayers to realize gains under Gov. Scott Walker’s newly enacted package of union and other reforms.
What once were budget-busting headaches have been replaced by cost-cutting pain relief, thanks to changes in government-sector union negotiations that became effective in June and concessions that he extracted during the run-up to his reforms becoming law.
Even Walker’s opponents are forced to concede the savings, albeit by condemning them as crimes against unions.
For example, what was a projected $400,000 budget shortfall at the Kaukauna Area School District turned into a $1.5 million surplus overnight, when the school board had the legal authority to set higher employee-contribution levels for health insurance and pension contributions.
Before the law took effect, contribution levels had to be negotiated with the union, which was essentially a nonstarter. Under the new law and with the school board able to set new and higher rates unilaterally, the district immediately had enough cash to reduce class sizes and provide merit pay to teachers.
Critics claim that concessions offered by the local teachers union would have achieved the same savings, and the new law can’t be credited with the result. But had it not been for the pressure exerted upon unions by the political process as it moved toward passage of Walker’s Budget Repair Act, the situation would have remained the same. It was a simple political validation of Newton’s first law of motion that requires force to be exerted upon something before it gets off the dime and moves.
Other jurisdictions are capitalizing on savings opportunities too. In Racine, county officials now unfettered by union claims of jurisdiction over certain menial-labor tasks have put jail inmates to work performing landscaping and maintenance work previously done by well-paid union workers who now can performing more complex assignments that would benefit the community.
Six-months earlier, a similar scheme was crushed by a judge who ruled in favor of union complaints that having inmates work around the county courthouse violated a union contract. Once the contract expired, the county was free to do what it thought necessary to save money.
Critics of the use of inmate labor are quick to dredge up parallels to slavery or chain gangs without offering any proof, substantive or otherwise, that anyone is being abused or endangered. The only thing that’s threatened, and what they’re really mad about, is the iron-clad union hegemony that tied the hands of elected officials and effectively made taxpayers the victims of union abuse.
But not all county officials are jumping on the cost-cutting bandwagon. In part as a result of the literal race-to-the-courthouse negotiations between many unions and sympathetic local governments that took place before Walker’s bill became law, restrictive contract rules still apply in some cities and counties.
In Dane County, home of the initially successful court challenge to the bill that the state Supreme Court eventually repudiated as an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers, Elise Schaffer, spokeswoman for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, is reported as saying, “Nobody in our jail will be benefiting (from the collective bargaining changes).”
Nobody appears to be losing a job over any of these moves, a point lost to critics of Walker and his new law. On the contrary. In Kaukauna, the talk was of teachers not being laid off, while in Racine, county employees were reassigned to higher-value-added tasks. And critics fail to take into account the fact that the money being saved by local governments is money that taxpayers won’t have to pay or that can be used for new or delayed projects.
Compare this to California where a newly passed law sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting his signature would require that half of all appointees to city and county civil service commissions be made by unions. In California, civil service commissions resolve disputes over wages, hours of work and other terms and conditions of employment. In other words, union bosses would be able to appoint themselves to commissions responsible for ultimately deciding whether the demands union bosses make should be met.
Since few argue that California is the nation’s ultimate fiscal basket case, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Whether Brown will sign the measure remains to be seen, although the political pressure on him to do so is very strong since he relied heavily on union support in his election campaign.
All is not over in Wisconsin, as this month’s recall elections of six Republican and three Democratic state senators attests. On July 12, voters will decide whether to punish the Republicans for supporting Walker or punish the Democrats for fleeing the state that temporarily prevented legislative action on the subsequently enacted bill.
Unprecedented amounts of out-of-state money are pouring into Wisconsin to influence the outcome. In-state contributions could even include dollars saved by some Wisconsin taxpayers as a result of Walker’s reforms. Depending upon which side they go to, that would be an ironic example of biting the hand that feeds you.
Scott St. Clair is a journalist and political writer who recently moved to New Jersey from Washington state where he was the investigative reporter for the Freedom Foundation, a non-partisan, nonprofit public policy think tank. He came to the Garden State to follow his heart and because, for what he does, the fields are ripe for the harvest. He can be reached at email@example.com.