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COMMENTARY: Wisconsin taxpayers benefit from Walker reforms

By   /   July 7, 2011  /   14 Comments

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What once were budget-busting headaches have been replaced by cost-cutting pain relief, thanks to changes in government-sector union negotiations that became effective in June and concessions that he extracted during the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 protected]


  • J
  • There is certainly “some” good that will come from Walker’s public union attacks, though there will also be negatives to the economy as wages and employment are decreased. I have always been concerned with the idea that small class sizes are better, when they mostly increase the need for teachers that pay dues and benefit the wages of union leaders more than my kids.

    But we should be careful that we don’t drink too much of Walker’s Kool-aid, as he favors privatization over public entities. Remember that “private” contractors can give campaign contributions and public entities can’t, but that’s a very poor reason to lean in that direction. I wish my politician made decisions without private cash flowing.

  • Finally, Wisconsin is doing something to remedy our financial mess. Also, in the long run more money will actually go back into the classrooms for the benefit of the children. The big losers in this were the union bosses who really don’t care about union members or the state of our economy.

  • Ron Langevin

    Well, you are dead wrong on all counts. Privitation is always better, costs, less and is far more reliable and less demanding. Example, a private contractor, say to paint the rotunda would offer his services for X amount of dollars knowing if he bid too high, someone else would get the job. He will do it better than a union or public worker, and faster. You might note that private contractors do not have shovel sockets in their overalls to lean on so they can sleep standing up. There has never been actual proof, just a agreement among libs and teachers that smaller class sizes are better, etc so right on that one but the final point that private contractors can make contributions and public entities can’t is not quite all there. Private contractors and companies and their employees make contributions but always individually, public on the other hand pays the union to do so and in 50 percent of the cases, the fellow who paid sees his money going to the wrong side. (usually all to demorats.)

  • Verycynical

    So, all this money pouring back into classrooms is going … where? More brooms maybe …. more pencils and desks and …. What are you people talking about. Jack …. you and a few others who also believe the earth is flat and there is no global climate change are the only ones who question class size. Kids learn when they have highly effective teachers. Period. You figure it out.

    You guys have figured it out … take everyone out of the middle class, turn public schools into holding pens for the formerly middle class, now poor, kids, and wait for the historically high profits from the top to trickle down to the rest of us … like we’ve been waiting for for 30 years. It hasn’t work before, what makes you think it will work now.

    Well, at least everyone will be miserable together.

  • Verycynical

    PS: You might want to pay attention t o what really happens in Kaukauna. Class sizes aren’t going down. They’re just staying level in comparison to what the district thought originally. There aren’t really more teachers. The district appears to have laid off “too many” teachers originally are is now calling back some. Those aren’t new teachers. And, finally, this is year one. Unless Kaukauna wants to continue to cut the compensation of those teaching its children, the savings stop at the end of the school year. All we’ve done is just restablish the base. Non-labor costs will go up next year. I’m thinking that there will also be increases in compensation. So, unless there is a sizable increase in state aid … good luck with that … Kaukauna is in deep doodoo in years two and beyond.

  • Verycynical

    Governor Doyle and the Democrats didn’t do the right thing. Despite the claim, neither has Governor Walker and the Republicans … we still have a structural deficit, he did raise taxes, and, in the process, he gave tax breaks to corporations that don’t deserve them and the wealthiest among us at the expense of children and those in need Great job, guys …. great job.

  • Well Ron, I never say never… or always. Why is private Medicare “Advantage” plans costing taxpayers 17% more than Government Medicare? Why are private mercenaries in the middle east costing five times MORE than government troops?

    Yes there is public bloat, but there is also private bloat (such as high CEO salaries and benefits and stock options, and profits for shareholders), all of which do not exist in public entities but do in private and are passed on to the taxpayers.

    Damn I wish we could get away from blaming each other for stupid Dems and stupid R’s. Yes, there are those on both sides that drink the Kool-aid, but it is the politicians and their Fat Cat funders that have us fragmented and battling each other rather than the system of political corruption. I wouldn’t care what the R’s passed or the D’s passed if I just knew that cash bribes did not change hands in the process. Righties and Lefties alike should fight for a clean political system.

  • Bridgit Roeth

    Sorry Ron – you are the one who is dead wrong! There have been several studies showing that private contractors do NOT cost less, and how can you assume they do a better job? Any FOR PROFIT company is going to be interested in the money first – how can the low wage employees they have care about the quality of their work more than a well paid public employee working for a non profit (government) employer? Logic says they won’t.

    And I love the way this person says taxpayers benefit – forgetting that public employees are also taxpayers and they are definitely NOT benefiting with less income.

  • The big complaint from the unions are the dues…that is what this is all about. The unions want the dues to automatically come out of the union members paychecks so the union bosses can keep their power. If the no changes were made to the “staus quo” then many public service employees would have been laid off. Walker and the Republicans are saving jobs in the long run. Look at what is happening in Minnesota and other states that have not dealt seriously with their financial mess. In Wisconsin, changes were made and for the most part people kept their jobs.

  • How does the Kool-aid taste, Dean? CEOs cannot take home more cash when they have to hand it out in jobs.

  • Koeppel

    OK, I’ll bite. Any FOR PROFIT company is going to be interested in the money first, and any NON PROFIT organization is interested in what exactly? I think it’s still money. However, instead of share-holder interests, it’s self interests as in growing the organization and employee salaries. Also, political power comes into play. These organizations are going to work to elect public officials that will serve their interests. That is the problem with public unions. They spend a great deal of money to get politicians elected that will work to increase their size which increases their revenues which increases their ability to help elect public officials who serve their interests. At least if you have the FOR PROFIT groups competing, they’ll have to bid down the price of doing business in order to stay in the game.

  • Jake

    I’m trying to figure out exactly which red herring fallacy your reply falls under. Perhaps you can help me decide: is it an Ad Hominem attack (since you begin by outright attacking the poster), or perhaps a Straw Man (since the original post had nothing to do with CEOs and private sector jobs); plus hints of a False Dilemma and Appeal to Poverty…

  • Craig

    These arguments amaze me. The Unions actually think they run this state and will stop at nothing to show they still do. It’s about time employees are not forced to join an organization in order to work for an employer, or forced to pay dues to an organization they never wanted to join used to support candidates they don’t agree with. It is just plain wrong.

    It didn’t have to come to this but the unions kept feeding at the trough of the private sector and demanding more. The public sector employers were handing out other peoples money, so it was just plain easier to cater to union demands.

    In the private sector a company has to cut back and slash whatever it needs to do to survive, in the public sector the union attitude is we deserve more and more from us while being perfectly content to watch us bleed. So all you people looking for sympathy? The rest of us(those you work for) already have to do far more than what you are being asked….and happy for the benefits we do have. Spoiled children.