Re: Wisconsin: The Hemlock Revolution

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John Boehner argues the proper frame for the Madison protests is not the uprising in Egypt but last year’s skirmishes in Greece: “When the American people watched the people of Greece take to the streets to protest cuts to unsustainable government programs, they worried it might foreshadow events in our nation’s distant future – but today, we see the same sort of protests on the streets of Madison, fueled by President Obama’s own political machine,” said the House Speaker. Boehner blasted the President’s political organization, Organizing for America, for its decision to “demagogue reform-minded governors.”

With party leaders weighing in, operatives converging on Madison and similar gatherings planned in neighboring states like Ohio and Indiana, Wisconsin’s worker protests have quickly ballooned into a national issue. At the center of it is Scott Walker, who at this rate may decide to marshal his newfound notoriety and run for president as a svelter Chris Christie. (Predictably, the anti-union Christie publicly backed Walker’s bill.) As commenter jsfox and others pointed out yesterday, a Jan. 31 memo from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated the state had a $121 million surplus through the remainder of the fiscal year– not, as Walker said, a $137 million shortfall. It’s true that Walker’s slate of tax cuts and corporate incentives has walloped Wisconsin’s budget. But as the Journal-Sentinel points out:

There’s more to the memo. The budget surplus will only happen if the state keeps its spending in line with what has been budgeted. But the memo lays out about $258 million in spending by the state that is projected to go over budget. That’s in several areas, including health care spending for the poor, prisons and a payment due to Minnesota in December after the canceling of an income tax agreement between the two states. Once this over-budget spending is factored in, the state will be unable to pay all its bills this fiscal year if no action is taken. “We have $121 million in the bank but if we addressed the $258 million in shortfalls then we’re in the hole by $137 million,” said Bob Lang, the director of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Two further points. In assessing the “budget-repair” bill, it makes sense to bifurcate its components, since some have an immediate monetary effect and some don’t. Asking public workers to contribute more of their pay to foot the bill for escalating health care costs is not unreasonable, given the strains on underfunded state pension accounts. Shelly Moore, for example, told she was more than willing to consider such a concession, because she accepted the state was in crisis. Stripping away the long-held right to collectively bargain is another animal entirely. It has no direct effect on the budget beyond the assumption that it will hold down pay and benefits in the future.

In his earlier post, Joe refers to this outcome as a proper “rebalancing of power.” I think this transfers resentment for public-union bosses onto the workers people they represent. The job-creation mantras people love to chant does not always extend to government jobs, as Boehner made clear this week. The bill in Wisconsin would affect a broad swath of public workers–everyone but police, firefighters and state troopers–but take teachers as an example. Yes, it’s way too hard to fire bad teachers. But we smear good ones with the same brush. In his State of the Union last month, President Obama noted that teachers are known as “nation-builders” in Korea. “Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect,” he said. If you take a stroll around Internet comment boards (not just this one, though it’s certainly the case here), it’s clear that many people consider them lazy, overpaid parasites instead. The U.S. lags behind many of its competitors in student achievement, and this attitude is one reason why we’ll stay there.