Wisconsin budget bill debate crucial to national politics

Adam Kranz

I have been disappointed to see an astonishing amount of ignorance and ill-will in the Lawrence conversation regarding Governor Scott Walker’s Senate Bill 11. I’d like to take this space to clarify some very important points and hopefully inform a heated campus debate.

Walker insists that his bill is meant to help the people of Wisconsin by rescuing them from a looming budget deficit. Let’s take a look at some of the things Walker has said and done, and see if they are congruent with this assertion.

If Walker is truly hoping to resolve the deficit without unduly harming the people, why has he not repealed or reduced the tax cuts he instated early in his tenure, which are projected to increase Wisconsin’s debt by $140 million during the next fiscal biennium? Why has he refused to accept compromises offered by public unions and instead insisted on greatly diminishing the rights of their members?

If Walker is passing this legislation for the sake of the people, why has he insistently ignored their vociferous attempts to enter the conversation? If he is so confident in the value of his bill for the Wisconsin economy, why has he shirked proper procedure and discussion in the legislature? Why did he attempt to pass the bill without giving fair public notice about hearings? Why did Assembly Republicans blindside the Democrats with a flash vote, excluding many dissenting voices?

Walker has spoken often about the need for public employees, long spared from the economic downturn, to share in the state’s fiscal woes. However, Walker explicitly excludes firefighters and police from the “shared sacrifice.” Is this because Walker values the services those professions provide more than he values education and healthcare? Or is it because he hopes to reward them for supporting him during his gubernatorial election and punish teachers, nurses and others who primarily opposed him?

These points are persuasive, if not conclusive evidence that Walker has more than fiscal responsibility on his mind, and they suggest that his concern for the people of Wisconsin has been overshadowed by special interests. What, then, does Walker truly hope to accomplish with this bill? Does it include a pay raise for the governor? No: Walker will suffer from the same pay cut he is trying to impose on public employees. But Wisconsin’s teachers and correctional officers won’t have David Koch flying them out to California for a victory vacation when those cuts take effect. Certainly none of them can look forward to a pension plan as nice as the cushy job Walker will find at the Heritage Foundation or some other conservative think-tank when his term is up.

Who stands to gain from Walker’s plan? Section 44 of the bill sheds some light on this question: “the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling and power plant, or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state.”

What place does this have in a bill meant to repair the budget? The solicitation of bids is a process meant to earn the state as much money as possible. Circumventing it will cost the state money — money it can’t afford to waste in the face of a budget deficit. It also opens the door for all kinds of corruption and fraud — as witnessed during the closed contract deals that occurred at the outset of the Iraq War.

A good case has been made that one of Walker’s top financiers, Koch Industries, could gain a vertical monopoly in Wisconsin’s power industry through this clause. Koch Industries even opened a new lobbying office just down the street from the Capitol when Walker took office. Regardless of who benefits, however, they will do so at the expense of the people of Wisconsin and the health of the state’s budget.

Thus, the bill will hurt Wisconsinites even if its clauses on union rights are removed as a compromise. Those clauses are crucial, however, to the broader, national interests at stake in the Wisconsin fight.

SB-11 would be a critical blow to Wisconsin’s public unions. It disallows unions from advocating for better working conditions, hours, healthcare, etc., and limits them to negotiating only wage issues. At the same time, it limits wage increases to those compensating for inflation. Another clause prevents unions from requiring their members to pay dues. Why would workers pay dues or vote to continue the union at all, when it is, for all intents and purposes, useless?

I have, rather disturbingly, heard many of my peers suggest that this wouldn’t be a bad thing. They say things like, “Unions were important back in the day, when worker exploitation was the norm. Unions saved us from that, but now they’ve outlived their usefulness.” They go on to add that “unions are driving jobs overseas. They hurt our economy.”

I’d love to address all these points at length, but I’ll limit myself here to the necessities. Party politics in the U.S. have always been more about competing economic interest groups, particularly sectors of the economy with competing fiscal policy interests, than about ideology. During the course of U.S. labor history, workers have been able to unionize. They were able to stand together not only to effect labor reforms, but also to express their voice with money in the political process. Unions have served as a voice for the people over the course of the past century and share credit for the significant social reforms during that time.

Recently, unions have most often been aligned with Democrats, whose other financiers are banks and other capital-heavy industries that can afford to push for higher compensation for workers. Republicans seek to reduce the power of unions because they know how effective unions have been in mobilizing Democratic votes. Republicans are hoping that if Wisconsin, a state with a strong union history that is clearly willing to stand up for the rights of its workers, will cave on this bill, then many other states with new Republican majorities will be able to pass similar bills — crippling unions and hence their opposition nationwide.

Personally, I could care less whether the Democrats ever win an election again. That’s not why this is important: The middle and working classes must have effective advocates in our government. Unions aren’t perfect or sufficient in this regard, but we cannot stand to lose them. If we lose the fight here in Wisconsin, things will go very badly for the working and middle classes in the coming years. Thus, it is imperative that we all stand up and fight back!