Reading The Wisconsin Tea Leaves

On June 5, an interesting collection of tea leaves will settle into the bottom of the political prognostication cup in Wisconsin. The Badger State is in the throes of a pitched battle between the future of public sector unionism and the reality of the finite amount of tax revenues available to sustain recent soaring levels of state and local government spending. Push is going to come to shove in Wisconsin on June 5 in the recall elections for governor and lieutenant governor, and the outcome will have a lot to say about the future of compulsory public sector unionism in the U.S.

Governor Scott Walker ran on a platform of addressing state and local budget deficits by reining in excesses in public sector collective bargaining agreements. His advocacy of public sector collective bargaining reform was anything but a stealth attack. After pouring millions of dollars into the effort to defeat Walker, the government employee unions felt confident that they could kill his attempt to sidetrack their compulsory union dues gravy train. They were wrong.

Wisconsin is a classic “purple” state, neither red nor blue. But the voters in Wisconsin were tired of a sluggish economy that was penalized by the high-tax, big-government agenda of state officials who preceded Walker. Voters elected Walker to resuscitate a moribund economy and to bring the escalating budget deficits under control. Unlike some who ride popular campaign rhetoric to victory and then abandon it, Walker fought hard to enact the collective bargaining reforms he promised. That was taboo to the unions. They occupied the Capitol in Madison and encouraged their puppets in the Legislature to flee the state in order to stop Walker’s reform agenda from passing. But the Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t stay gone forever. They finally had to concede that elections have consequences and came home to take their lumps.

As soon as Walker’s reforms passed, the public sector unions launched their recall petition drives against Walker, the lieutenant governor and key Republican state senators. The unions failed in their attempts to win the Senate back. Their iron-fisted tactics only strengthened the legislative resolve to carry forward with the reforms. It now appears that the effort to remove Walker from the governor’s mansion will also fail. All of the current state public opinion polls show Walker with a solid single-digit lead.

There is a reason for that. The state budget is now rounding into balance since public sector workers are finally having to pay a reasonable amount to help fund their pension and health care costs. Local governments are leaving the brink of bankruptcy and are starting to balance their budgets without a never-ending increase in property and sales taxes. For the first time in several years, unemployment levels are dropping and jobs are increasing, not decreasing, in Wisconsin.

Even more ominous for the public sector unions is the fact that government workers are no longer required to have union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. Since Walker’s reform legislation became law, those workers have to voluntarily write checks to the unions to maintain their memberships. The data now show that many of them have no desire to continue forced dues payments to some of the most radical unions in the nation.

Wisconsin gave birth to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the first public sector union in the nation. It is ironic indeed that the Wisconsin chapter of AFSCME has seen its membership among state workers plummet from 22,300 to 7,100 in the past year. The same trend is evident all around the state. Lost membership means lost dues which means less union money available to elect puppets and defeat opponents in state and local elections.

If Scott Walker wins the recall election on June 5, it will mean that the flexibility that state and local governments have gained from the collective bargaining reforms will remain in place and continue to bring a reasonable balance to the cost of providing public employee benefits in the Badger State. It will also mean that Democratic candidates won’t enjoy a significant advantage from union contributions in future elections. And, even more importantly, it will likely mean that Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes are in play for the presidential election this November.

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