In Wisconsin standoff, a test: Has governor gone overboard to trim deficit?
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants state workers to pay more for their pensions and health care, while taking away their unions' collective bargaining power. The governor says he has no choice in order to trim a $3.6 billion deficit. But state workers are livid.
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Despite the visuals of protesters descending on state capitols where these measure are under debate, there is a sense that the general public is favoring a cut-at-all-cost approach following the midterm elections, which ceded power in many statehouses to Republicans. This is especially true in Wisconsin, where Walker defeated Democrat Tom Barrett to replace two-term Gov. Jim Doyle (D), and businessman Ron Johnson, a Republican from Oshkosh who associated himself with the tea party during the campaign, defeated longtime US Sen. Russ Feingold (D).Skip to next paragraph
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Wisconsin voters also transferred power of both houses to Republicans for the first time since 1998.
Professor Franklin says the transition to Republican leadership “shows a strong contingency of the public was very amenable to candidates who were promising very sharp cuts from state as well as federal spending.”
“So while it is certainly possible there will be negative blowback, it is still not at all clear whether someone like Governor Walker has overreached with this plan or whether or not the same majority that elected him as well as both houses of the legislature will be happy and have him elected again,” he adds.
A precursor to how Walker’s proposals might play out are salary freezes enacted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) against state teachers and superintendents. Despite a heated battle that drew national media attention, Governor Christie's approval rating rose from 46 percent to 52 percent from December to February, according to a Quinnipiac poll.
Mr. Franklin called the Christie situation “a good political example that touching state worker benefits and pay is not necessarily a third rail in politics these days.”
Few options left
Ending collective bargaining agreements is a next step after many states exhausted budget-cutting tactics such as furloughs, hiring freezes, and cutbacks in pension and benefit obligations. The current move in the direction of union cuts is due to the new generation of first-time Republican governors who may feel they have more political capital, says Leslie Scott, director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives in Lexington, Ky.
“A lot of these governors feel there was somewhat of a mandate for change,” Ms. Scott says.
Hardships posed by the recession are responsible for fanning public anger in the direction of the state workers, says Robert Novy-Marx, an expert on state pension reform at the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester in New York.
“[Public workers] are being perceived as suffering none of the pain and retiring with higher benefits,” Mr. Novy-Marx says.
That perception is unfair considering the roles state workers play in providing “vital services to families and communities,” says Alice Johnson, a labor attorney with the Illinois Nurses Association in Chicago, which represents more than 3,600 nursing professionals. Ms. Johnson interprets the Wisconsin legislation as “not just an attack on unions, but an attack on the middle class” and adds that targeting workers such as teachers does not bode well for local communities.
“The worst part about it is everybody suffers,” she says.