Monday, March 07, 2011

Wisconsin's long state nightmare

The WSJ is reporting that the Wisconsin Democrats are going to return home and allow the Republican bill to restrict public-employee unions' ability to collective bargain on their pensions and helath benefits.
Playing a game of political chicken, Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin to stymie restrictions on public-employee unions said Sunday they planned to come back from exile soon, betting that even though their return will allow the bill to pass, the curbs are so unpopular they'll taint the state's Republican governor and legislators.

The Republicans rejected the idea that the legislation would hurt the GOP. "If you think this is a bad bill for Republicans, why didn't you stand up in the chamber and debate us about it three weeks ago?" said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. "People think it's absolutely ridiculous that these 14 senators have not been in Wisconsin for three weeks."
It's not clear which party will benefit from this whole situation. I don't put much faith in the polls since it's a complicated issue which can't be summed up in one poll question. But it can be demagogued and mischaracterized by the media. A recent poll shows different responses depending on how the bill is characterized.

This is where it will be the job of Governor Walker and the Wisconsin GOP to make the case well and often to the public about what the fiscal situation is in Wisconsin that led them to vote for and sign this bill. They need to make the argument connecting those pension and health-care benefits to the fiscal problems facing the state. They need to explain the differences between collective bargaining between private sector union workers and their boss and a public sector union that manages to get their preferred politicians into power and then negotiates with those very politicians whose election they just bought. Union bargaining needs to be adversarial or else it just becomes collusion to get the taxpayer to pay for the election of Democrats and generous benefits for those public workers. It's not difficult to explain, but the case has to be made forcefully and regularly.

When explaining the problems that the public unions have brought the estate, he might want to quote from this editorial from, of all places, the New York Times.
At a time when public school students are being forced into ever more crowded classrooms, and poor families will lose state medical benefits, New York State is paying 10 times more for state employees’ pensions than it did just a decade ago.

That huge increase is largely because of Albany’s outsized generosity to the state’s powerful employees’ unions in the early years of the last decade, made worse when the recession pushed down pension fund earnings, forcing the state to make up the difference.

Although taxpayers are on the hook for the recession’s costs, most state employees pay only 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions, half the level of most state employees elsewhere. Their health insurance payments are about half those in the private sector.

In all, the salaries and benefits of state employees add up to $18.5 billion, or a fifth of New York’s operating budget. Unless those costs are reined in, New York will find itself unable to provide even essential services.
Find the parallel statistics from Wisconsin and make them common knowledge. Of course, the Times, being the Times, still inserts a dig against Governor Walker and other Midwestern Republican governors who are trying to prevent their states falling into as deep a hole as New York. Apparently, the New York Times isn't interested in preventing such problems, only dealing with them when they reach the disastrous level now facing New York.

Governor Walker should take a page from Governor Christie and go meet people in town halls on a regular bases and explain these matters. He shouldn't be afraid of raucous meetings and hostile questions. Instead he should use such gatherings as a foil and rise above the Walker/Hitler slogans to explain why he has supported this measure. The arguments are there and he's been making them, but he needs to keep making them and he needs to go beyond media interviews and talk to voters. Otherwise the demagoguery of the unions and Democrats will win in the end. And this is too important a battle to surrender after it is seemingly won.

UPDATE: One Democratic state senator, Chris Larson posts on Facebook that there are no plans to return any time soon. I guess they're not so sure that they're winning the PR battle.