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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

What’s Really Going on at the State Capitol?

The six-week governor provokes the biggest protest in Wisconsin in 40 years

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So, what’s happened to Wisconsin?

We’ve gone from a moderate state with a long progressive tradition to a tea-party-driven, union-busting state that is pitting neighbors against neighbors.

Chalk it up to Gov. Scott Walker, who never does anything without controversy.

Elected with just 52% of the vote and in office just six weeks, Walker has become a household name across the country for his nonnegotiable proposal to bust public employee unions—or else. Like sheep, Republicans in the state Legislature are prepared to rubber-stamp his every proposal without debate, no matter how much damage they will do to the state’s economy.

His attempt to kill off public employee unions—along with his refusal of $810 million in federal high-speed rail funding—has made Walker the darling of conservatives across the nation and FOX News. Walker’s raised media profile is making him a strong contender for vice president in 2012—or president, if you believe the hype. Because if Walker busts unions in Wisconsin, Republicans and their corporate backers believe they can bust unions anywhere. Their plans begin with public employees in Wisconsin, but they won’t stop until all workers—whether they’re in the public or private sector—lose their rights to have a voice in their workplace.

Walker’s unnecessary union-busting proposal also has made him the focus of enormous protests at the state Capitol, the biggest protests in the state since the Vietnam War. In declaring war on workers, Walker may just have lit the spark that reignites the labor and progressive movements here and in other states, which would certainly have political repercussions in 2012. Also, it is clear to many that a vote for Supreme Court Justice David Prosser on April 5 is really a vote for Walker.

The news out of Madison is changing by the minute and rumors are flying even faster. Here are some of the biggest myths and facts about Walker’s budget repair bill.

Myth:
Walker’s budget repair bill is only about money, nothing else.

Fact:
Republicans claim the bill is all about money and necessary to balance the state budget, so therefore it could be put on a fast track and circumvent the normal legislative process. Walker has called his union-busting proposal “modest” and claimed “it’s about the money.” State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) called it “fair” and a “small sacrifice” for represented workers.

But Walker’s budget repair bill is about far more than health care and pension contributions. The Senate Democrats and unions agreed to those concessions last week, but the Republicans rebuffed the offer, saying that the bill is not negotiable. Therefore, the bill the Democrats would have to vote for would disallow public employee unions from negotiating on health care coverage, staffing levels, seniority, workplace safety, sick days, vacation and more. Walker has even rejected a Republican proposal to suspend bargaining rights for two years.

But that’s not what this whole battle is about. The battle is about “power,” noted Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in TheNew York Times. “What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin—and eventually, America—less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.” Because, Krugman explained, Walker wants to bust unions, which will increase the power of lobbyists funded by billionaires like the ultra-libertarian Koch brothers, who own the largest privately held oil firm in the country and fund the Astroturf tea party group Americans for Prosperity (AFP).

The Koch Industries PAC just happens to have donated $43,000 directly to Walker in 2010. The Koch PAC also donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which spent $65,000 in support of Walker, according to an investigation by Mother Jones.

The Times confirmed the union-busting-Walker-AFP connection, and reported that AFP’s head, Tim Phillips, plans to repeat the strategy in other states. “The effort to impose limits on public labor unions has been a particular focus in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all states with Republican governors, Mr. Phillips said, adding that he expects new proposals to emerge soon in some of those states to limit union power,” the Times reported on Tuesday.

Even if you don’t believe TheNew York Times’ take on Walker’s bill, perhaps Bob Lang, the highly respected chief of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), will convince you. Lang found numerous non-fiscal policy items in the budget repair bill, including changes to collective bargaining rights for public employees, as well as eliminating that right for University of Wisconsin System faculty and academic staff, among others.

So much for it being all about the money.

Myth:
Wisconsin’s looming budget deficit is so bad that it’s an economic emergency.

Fact:
Wisconsin’s looming budget deficit is overstated. It’s estimated to be about $3.6 billion for 2011-2013. But that’s based on $3.9 billion in state agency budget requests (a 6.2% spending increase). As former co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) has pointed out, these requests are never approved in full. In fact, Pocan noted, the state LFB reported that agencies had requested a 9.7% increase in spending in the previous budget, but instead Democrats—then in charge—actually reduced state spending by 2.6%. Pocan called Walker’s economic emergency a “lie” and warned: Remember the Trojan War.

“The only way you can slip a bunch of bad public policy into law in Wisconsin is to disguise it as something else,” Pocan wrote on his blog. “Create a crisis, claim you are on the sole path to resolving that crisis, needing to enact whatever measures are necessary and be a hero to the people. Right…”

Myth:
Wisconsin’s looming budget deficit is the worst in the state’s history.

Fact:
The Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum administrations dumped a $3.2 billion deficit on newly elected Gov. Jim Doyle in 2003, but you don’t hear anything from Walker about his fellow Republicans’ fiscal irresponsibility. Doyle managed to balance the budget in each biennium—without gutting workers’ rights—but you don’t hear anything from Walker about Doyle’s prudent budgeting. Due to the downturn in the national economy, Doyle faced a $5.94 billion fiscal deficit, which he reduced thanks to the federal stimulus package and a blend of corporate tax increases, unpaid employee furloughs and decreased spending.

Myth: Walker’s budget repair bill would help local governments balance their budgets because of wage and benefits concessions and “flexibility” with contracts.

Fact:
This isn’t even close to being true. First, local governments haven’t asked the state to end collective bargaining for their represented workers. Second, Walker’s upcoming budget will result in layoffs. But instead of Walker laying off state workers, Walker will force mayors, county executives and school superintendents to do so by his proposals to seriously cut state shared revenues that go to local units of government.

In addition, by carving out exemptions for unions that endorsed him in his campaign—law enforcement and firefighters—Walker is hamstringing local officials who need to craft a balanced budget while having to cope with reduced state aid.

Take Milwaukee, for example. Mayor Tom Barrett sent a letter to Sen. Darling and state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine), the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, explaining his predicament. Fire and police employees account for 65% of the city’s operating budget salaries. They’d be spared from Walker’s shared revenue cuts. Therefore, the rest of Milwaukee’s employees would bear the burden of Walker’s cuts to municipalities.

As Barrett said on Monday in his State of the City speech, “A cut to shared revenue is a cut to public safety. I know [Walker is] trying to wash his hands of the public safety impacts of his decision by excluding Milwaukee police and fire from his proposals, but that just pushes the decision to the city level. There will be an impact.”

Myth:
Walker delayed the introduction of his biennial budget, scheduled for Feb. 22, because of the protests at the Capitol.

Fact:
Walker delayed his budget twice because drastic cuts to local governments and education are written into it and the only way he can make it work is by killing off decades-old, hard-won rights of public employees to organize and bargain for wages and working conditions—rights that the federal government guarantees for private-sector workers.

“Unfortunately, education and shared revenue will take significant cuts,” state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told TheCapital Times. “The only way local governments will be able to handle it is without collective bargaining.”

Walker’s refusal to negotiate with unions and recognize their right to bargain is nothing new. His 2010 and 2011 Milwaukee County budgets contained tens of millions of wage and benefits concessions that had never been presented to unions at the bargaining table. In fact, Walker’s handpicked labor negotiator had come up with a tentative agreement with most of the county’s unions in 2010, but Walker ignored his own negotiator’s deal with labor and instead created $32 million of concessions in his budget. Walker’s budget was so bad that the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission found that Walker’s team had bargained in “bad faith.”

Myth:
Walker’s budget repair bill would not have repercussions beyond wages and benefits of state workers.

Fact:
Actually, Walker’s union-busting bill would jeopardize millions in federal funding. Take transit, for example. Most of the state’s transit workers are unionized. And federal transit aid requires that transit systems that allow workers to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions with local governments must continue to do so or lose their federal money. According to the state LFB, in 2010 Wisconsin received $60.9 million in federal aid. But an estimated $46.6 million would be in jeopardy if Walker kills public employees’ right to bargain for working conditions, pension, seniority, vacation, sick and personal leave and other issues. The cuts would seem to spare Milwaukee County for the most part, because our transit workers, while unionized, work for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), a private, nonstock corporation. Technically, they aren’t county employees. But the $46 million lost would definitely affect struggling transit systems around the state. Layoffs and severe service cutbacks would be inevitable.

Myth:
Walker called on the National Guard only to attend to potential staffing issues in state prisons if corrections workers decide to strike.

Reality:
Not quite true. Walker broached the issue of a possible National Guard deployment while introducing his budget repair bill at a press conference on Feb. 11. “In state government, we have had, before I’ve taken office, plans for contingencies no matter what the circumstances,” Walker told reporters. “We have updated those. I got a full briefing from all the major, level-one state agencies as well as the National Guard yesterday. We are fully prepared and equipped to handle whatever may occur. So we have every confidence we can move on that. But again, you plan for the worst, you expect the best. And I expect from the good men and women who work for state and local government that they’re going to continue to do the good, professional job they do each and every day.”

No mention of substituting National Guard members for prison workers in the event of a strike.

Newspapers around the state picked up his comments in their headlines. “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says National Guard ready for any unrest over anti-union bill,” the Green Bay Press Gazette claimed. The Associated Press headlined its syndicated story with “Walker says National Guard is prepared.”

Those who support the state’s workers were outraged, understandably.

So what about the prisons?

That came later, in the pro-Walker Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which allowed the new governor to walk back his comments in an interview. The JS continued to provide cover for Walker in its politically biased PolitiFact Wisconsin feature, claiming that every media outlet that had reported on Walker’s initial comments, and all of the union supporters who were outraged by them, had their “pants on fire.”

Myth:
The departure of the 14 Democratic state senators to prevent the state Senate from having 20 members present—necessary for a vote on a fiscally related bill—is unprecedented in our country and a waste of time.

Fact:
It’s been done before, under extreme circumstances. In 2002, the former majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tom Delay, engaged in illegal activities to elect Republican majorities in both houses of the Texas Legislature so they could redraw the lines for that state’s congressional delegation. This would be the first time in Texas history that the state Legislature would redraw the congressional lines mid-decade without being ordered to do so by the courts. (State legislatures draw the congressional boundary lines for their state’s congressional delegation.)

To try to prevent Tom Delay’s gerrymandered, pro-Republican congressional district map from being passed, in 2003 the minority Democrats went across the state line to New Mexico and Oklahoma to deprive the Legislature of a quorum necessary to conduct business. The Democrats eventually returned to Texas, the new gerrymandered congressional lines were passed and the Texas Republicans picked up six more seats in the Texas congressional delegation. Later, Delay was indicted for his illegal election activity that produced the Republican majorities, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to three years in prison for money laundering in connection with his campaign activities. The Texas Democrats used this last-ditch effort of leaving the state to hold off Delay’s corrupt abuse of power.

Similarly, Wisconsin Democrats are attempting to prevent Walker and state Republicans from stripping public employees of their right to collectively bargain as part of a budget repair bill that should include nothing more than fiscal items.

As this paper is going to press, it was announced that Indiana legislators have crossed the state line and are holed up in Illinois in an effort to thwart anti-union legislation in that state.

Myth:
Tea party organizer Americans for Prosperity held a counter-rally on Saturday that seemed to be an even match for union supporters.

Fact:
Although Americans for Prosperity provided bus rides around the state for the big Saturday counter-rally—and generated tons of headlines across the country—they only managed to round up about 2,000 supporters. Local law enforcement, however, estimated that the anti-Walker rally-goers numbered around 70,000.
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