Total Recall: Our Future Hangs on Wisconsin Vote

Total Recall: Our Future Hangs on Wisconsin Vote

This week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received rock-star treatment during a speech to the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Outside the event, thousands of public sector union members angrily protested the visit. It is doubtful that any sitting governor ever sparked such passionate support or opposition in their own state, never mind a neighboring one. Most Governors can slip in and out of other states with almost no notice, but Gov. Walker has been criss-crossing the country speaking on government reform and eliciting both ardent support and fervent opposition. Such scenes go a long way to explaining why the upcoming recall vote in Wisconsin is so critical. In fact, the upcoming vote is the most important election taking place in 2012. 

Last year, against vitriolic and often violent union protests, Gov. Walker ushered through the legislature a package of budget reforms to address the state’s fiscal deficit. The signature reform, Act 10, removed public sector pension and health benefits from the collective bargaining process, empowering local governments and school districts to close their budget gaps without resorting to program cuts or massive lay-offs. The Act also ended the practice of automatically deducting public sector union dues from members’ paychecks, giving individual union members a choice in deciding to support certain union activities. 

In just the first few months of the passage of the reforms, local governments across the state have used the new tools to balance their budgets without having to resort to tax hikes or draconian across-the-board spending cuts. The state itself has quickly swung from a trend of multi-billion dollar deficits to balance and fiscal sanity. In short, Walker’s reforms worked. And, boy, are the public sector unions ever pissed about it. 

Immediately after the passage of the reforms, the public sector unions threw their considerable political weight behind efforts to recall several GOP senators. They also targeted a state Supreme Court special election, hoping that, having failed in the legislature, they could put a sycophantic judge on the bench to throw out the new reforms. Despite spending tens of millions of their members’ hard-earned dollars, the unions failed in these efforts. 

Now, in a last ditch battle against the new reforms, the unions are banking everything on an effort to ‘recall’ the author of the reforms, Scott Walker. Tens of millions of dollars and rank-and-file union members will pour into Wisconsin from all over the country. The vote, scheduled for June 5th, will generate the kind of attention and excitement that is usually reserved for Presidential campaigns. Its outcome will also match the impact of a Presidential election. The future direction of our nation hinges on this vote.

The unions realize this vote is about much more than Wisconsin or even Scott Walker. As will explore over the coming weeks, government budgets, at all levels, are on an unsustainable path. Much of the rapid growth in spending by state and local governments is attributable to over-generous pay and benefits for public sector workers. During better economic times, public sector unions were able to leverage their hefty political muscle to win lucrative contracts from state and local officials, many of whom were eager recipients of the unions’ campaign donations. 

Over the past couple decades, we’ve witnessed the creation of a protected political class who use forced union dues collection to lobby state and local officials as well as campaign for them at election time. In essence, the unions have been able to largely hire their own bosses through the ballot box and then secure general pay and benefit packages in return. This illegitimate cycle was funded by us, the taxpayers. 

But, after years of this political carousel, the money is running out. Left unchecked, union contract demands will consume ever greater shares of public budgets. Honoring these demands will require massive tax hikes or sweeping, and draconian, budget and program cuts. The unions know this and they are scared. They realize that many of these sweetheart deals are an impossible sell to the general public. If Walker’s reforms take hold and the public realizes that enormous cost-savings can be achieved through minor changes in public sector compensation, without cutting programs popular with the public, then a wave of reform will likely sweep into other states. 

The unions simply must beat Walker. If they fail, then Governors and Mayors, from both parties, around the country will mimic many of Walker’s reforms. They, frankly, have no choice. 

Supporters of reform and fiscal sanity must realize the stakes of the fight this June. If the unions prevail, then efforts to stem the power of this protected class will wither. In many states, satisfying the terms of past union contracts will be all but impossible without higher taxes or crippling debt. If the unions fail, however, then the path to fiscal reform will be open. 

What are you going to do to help win this fight?