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So, who started WI's 'civil war?' History offers clues

By   /   June 4, 2012  /   No Comments

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will tell you that Gov. Scott Walker started a civil war in Wisconsin by putting his signature on Act 10, the bill that curtailed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees.

Barrett says Walker pitted neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member, school boards against teachers.

He claims Walker cares more about a “national right-wing ideological tea party agenda” than the people of Wisconsin.

But the Democrat’s campaign rhetoric seems to ignore Wisconsin voters — such as Marv Kovach — who elected Walker in 2010 by nearly 6 percentage points over Barrett.

“To me, they’re just acting like spoiled brats,” said Kovach, a Republican voter. “Our President (Barack) Obama said that elections have consequences. We won the election … Walker won the election and I think he should get his full term. I think this do-over is ridiculous.”

To a lot of voters — about half, based on the polls and the mood of a divided state — Walker didn’t do the dividing. Unions did. And so did the party that protects organized labor and is nourished by them. And a view of history may argue this so-called civil war has been waged for decades, through growing organized labor power and public-sector unions’ refusal to give up gains despite unsustainable taxpayer commitments.

Makings of a war

The historic reality is that collective bargaining and public-sector union power have been political tug-of-war issues since the 1970s in Wisconsin.

In 1974, 84 teachers from the sleepy town of Hortonville, unhappy over contract negotiations with the local school board, decided to strike. The work stoppage garnered national attention. Eventually, the school board hired replacement teachers. Hortonville Education Association sued and ultimately lost its case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Jan. 1, 1978, a mediation/arbitration law went into effect creating a third-party arbitrator to settle disputes between public-sector unions and their employers.

The purpose of the law was to limit public-sector employees from striking. In practice, the law rapidly increased the salary of public workers.

From 1979 to 1992, for instance, the average teacher’s salary increased from $16,000 to $35,074, or from 20th to 13th nationwide.

Property tax rates skyrocketed. According to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance, property tax rates increased from $24.09 per $1,000 of full property value in 1985 to $32.39 per $1,000 in 1993.

In 1993, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson placed revenue controls on local property taxes to slow the growth of school districts’ levies. It worked. School tax rates fell in subsequent years.

Thompson also enacted a Qualified Economic Offer to curb compensation growth for school staff. Under QEO, if teachers’ unions and school districts could not agree on a contract, teacher compensation automatically increased 3.8 percent.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union, put a different spin on QEO.

“Under the QEO, school boards have the option of unilaterally limiting pay and benefits for K-12 teachers so long as the combined increase is 3.8 percent. The law allows school districts to avoid true collective bargaining regarding compensation and important school-quality issues,” the union stated.

WEAC opposed the QEO since its inception and called for its repeal.

Their wish eventually was granted. Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democratic, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature repealed QEO in 2009.

Walker campaigned on restoring it.

Who started the civil war?

Vicki Burke, Democratic Party of La Crosse County chairwoman, sees the recall election as the consequence of a war waged by Walker, through his successful push to strip public employee collective bargaining, has deeply divided Wisconsin.

“I certainly think we see in the community that the things Gov. Walker has (done) pitted neighbor against neighbor and friends against friends. I can see it in my own family, in my own neighborhood, at social events, meetings I go to,” she told Wisconsin Reporter.

“For example, when I visit with one family member, he tells me right away, ‘We’re not going to talk anything about politics.’ Before, where we were able to talk, it is not as easy to do anymore,” Burke said.

Not surprisingly, if you ask most Republicans, they offer a different perspective.

“Look, the last time I checked, we balanced a $3.6 billion budget deficit,” said state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, where Walker also resides. “And the civil war started when the unions decided to come after us for doing what we did — for being responsible, for dealing with something that was an unsustainable benefit that was going on.

“When you’re the person receiving death threats, and my colleagues receiving death threats, I ask you: Who’s the one waging war against whom?”

More than a year ago, Vukmir told The Daily Caller that the 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state to avoid a vote on the collective bargaining changes were overreacting, and the silent majority of Wisconsinites supported the changes brought about by Walker’s administration.

She and other Republicans point to the savings realized by local governments through Act 10, which required public employees — save police and firefighters and a few others — to contribute more to their health insurance premiums and pensions. The law, which sparked demonstrations last year from tens of thousands of protesters, also holds bargaining on wages at the rate of inflation.

Burke criticized the administration’s approach.

“Here’s the thing, you can claim that you saved taxpayer money, but you need to be specific about where and how that was accomplished. If it was done by hurting education and higher education, would that be the will of Wisconsin taxpayers?” Burke said.

Burke didn’t draw any parallels between Walker’s handling of collective bargaining and Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which drew similar nationwide scrutiny from the right. The final product, conservatives have criticized, was the work of Democrats, to the exclusion of Republicans — the same criticisms voiced by Wisconsin Democrats concerning the GOP-controlled Legislature’s passage of Act 10.

“I don’t think people think President Obama trying to improve health care is an overreach. Most people think health care needed reform,” Burke said. “The propaganda on the right has led people to believe health-care reform would be disastrous for them. The more they understand the health-care reform — how it benefits them — it will be accepted.”

Either way, the ammunition for the so-called civil war appears to have been spent. A majority of Wisconsin voters support the collective-bargaining reforms, if not the vehicle in which they arrived.

Walker picked the political battle of his life when he — as Mayor Barrett likes to say — “dropped the bomb” on Wisconsin public-sector unions with Act 10.

Walker said the bill was about restoring fiscal sanity to Wisconsin, helping to balance a $3.6 billion budget deficit without increasing taxes. Simultaneously, it took power from union members, and union bosses, something the Republican majority isn’t shedding any tears over. The idea, Walker has said repeatedly, was to return control to taxpayers.

But apparently, in Wisconsin, a governor enacting policy consistent with his political beliefs and fiscal realities is waging war.

“There’s some radical people like Tom Barrett who want to spend $20 million on a recall election on Scott Walker, but every budget is debatable,” said state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend. “I voted against Gov. Doyle’s budget, I didn’t try to recall him. No, the divisiveness is all coming from the left and Tom Barrett.

“To be honest, we have a lot of people who don’t like the fact that they took about a 10 percent cut in take-home pay. And the state was in crisis, plenty of people lost their jobs all together and if you still have a job with only a 10 percent cut in take-home pay, that’s not too bad.”