Monday, February 21, 2011

Gov. Scott Walker vs. The Wisconsin 14

Back during my former life as a law student I used to serve as the Treasurer for my school's Student Bar Association, which is basically the Congress-like body within each law school that governs how the school's student fees are spent.  I'll never forget this one session we had where things got so heated that one of the student representatives got up and walked out.  What made this particular session memorable is not the fact that the guy merely walked out but rather its how he walked out.  In the middle of all kinds of yelling and screaming and cursing, this guy patiently and quietly waited until he was recognized to speak by the chair and then he stood up, made a motion for a quorum call and then, upon hearing how many students representatives were necessary to maintain quorum, he remained standing and did a quick head count around the room.  After he completed his head count he turned to his two buddies (also student reps) and simply said two words: "let's go."  After all three of them walked out, the Secretary announced that we were, at that precise moment, 1 representative shy of the number of representatives necessary to have quorum.  In other words, this guy and his two buddies not only ended the heated debate on the issue that we were about to bring up for a vote, but he basically shut down our entire student government.  At the time, I couldn't appreciate that cat but I did have to respect his Gangster.

Fast forward to last week, Republican Governor Scott Walker, a product of the 2010 Republican Mid-Term election wave, introduced a bill into the Wisconsin State Senate that would have some negative effects for State workers and their union.  In a nutshell, his proposal would:

  1. Require State employees to double their current pension contributions to 5.8% of their salary
  2. Require State employees to increase their health insurance contributions from 5% to 12% of their salary
  3. Limit State employee salaries to no higher than the Consumer Price Index
  4. Eliminate collective bargaining rights for the State worker's unions on all issues except wage increases
The Wisconsin State Senate was set to entertain (and likely pass) a vote on Walker's bill until the 14 Democratic State Senators got up and walked out of the State Senate...and kept on walking right on out of the state of Wisconsin.  Because there are 33 State Senators in Wisconsin, and at least 17 are needed to maintain the quorum necessary to conduct State business, the Dems effectively shut down Wisconsin's state legislature.  Gangster.

Now, let me say for the record that items 1 through 3 of Walker's plan don't sound like such a bad idea - indeed the 14 Dems who left are willing to concede on those points - but with respect to item #4 I'm always leery of any government that talks about taking away the rights of the people.  If we take Gov. Walker at his word that the entire purpose of this plan is to help the state deal with it's deficit problem, then items 1 through 3 seem like a reasonable means to realize that end.  But the fourth item...ehhhhh not so much.   Taking away the collective bargaining rights of unions means that the unions cannot negotiate with the State for better benefits or work conditions for the State's employees.  Again, if the point here is to help Wisconsin reduce its deficit, then it doesn't make any sense to silence the unions whose job it is to advocate on behalf of workers.  So why did Gov. Walker feel the need to go there? 

Perhaps it might have something to do with Gov. Walker's blind adherence to conservative ideology.  It is no secret that conservatives/Republicans hate Unions and Gov. Walker does not appear to be an exception to that rule.  This is a guy who absolutely opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, opposes stem cell research, believes inmates should not receive time off for good behavior, and supports the right of pharmacists to refuse contraceptives to patients on religious grounds.   He also killed Wisconsin's high speed rail project which would have given $800 million dollars of federal stimulus money to the state.  Prior to his gubernatorial election when he served as County Executive for Milwaukee, he laid off 20% of the county employees to "lower the deficit" *wink* but then turned around during that same time period and actually increased county spending by 35% during his tenure.  And last but not least, due to a $140 Million tax cut Gov. Walker gave to the rich, the Wisconsin deficit is projected at $3.6 Billion (with a "B") through to June 2013 - even if Gov. Walker's proposal goes through it will only save $165 Million ("with an "M").  For the mathematically challenged among us, that means Gov. Walker is willing to go through all of this trouble with the Unions just to bring down the deficit by 4.5% (four point 5 percent)...which is absurd in and of itself before you even consider the fact that the tax cuts he gave at the beginning of his term increased the Wisconsin deficit by $140 Million.   In other words, Gov. Walker stubbornly sticks to his guns on conservative ideals even when they create absurd results. 

Now don't get me wrong, I believe there's merit in a good number of conservative principles (especially the fiscally conservative principles) but I also don't think it is reasonable to expect that one can successfully govern from a conservative position on EVERYTHING.  Nor is it reasonable to expect that one can successfully govern form a liberal position on EVERYTHING.  You have to look at what each situation calls for and act accordingly.  Otherwise you sacrifice what most people need to satisfy what a few people want.

Which brings us back to Gov. Walker vs. the 14 Democratic State Senators.  On the one hand, I recognize the legitimacy of Gov. Walker's desire to balance the budget.  On the other hand, I also recognize the legitimacy of the Democrats' desire to uphold Unions' rights to negotiate on behalf of workers who need it.

Who has the better argument here?
Is Walker being unreasonable?
Are the Dems being unreasonable?
Do we need Unions?
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