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Rich Tax Cuts Behind WI Budget Woes, Not Unions

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Published on Feb 18, 2011

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In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit [see update at end of post]. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

But even that's not the full story here. Public employees aren't being asked to make a one-time payment into the state's coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn't their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin's budget picture that wasn't their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular. And note that not all public-employee unions are covered by Walker's proposal: the more conservative public-safety unions -- notably police and firefighters, many of whom endorsed Walker -- are exempt.

If you read Walker's State of the State address, you can watch him hide the ball on what he's doing. "Our upcoming budget is built on the premise that we must right size our government," he said. "That means reforming public employee benefits -- as well as reforming entitlement programs and reforming the state's relationship with local governments." Not a word on his actual proposal, which is to end collective bargaining for benefits.

If all Walker was doing was reforming public employee benefits, I'd have little problem with it. There's too much deferred compensation in public employee packages, and though the blame for that structure lies partially with the government officials and state residents who wanted to pay later for services now, it's true that situations change and unsustainable commitments require reforms. But that's not what Walker is doing. He's attacking the right to bargain collectively -- which is to say, he's attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power -- and using an economic crisis unions didn't cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.

And it's not as if public employees aren't hurting. In the Wisconsin budget report I quoted earlier, the state's fiscal bureau goes on to survey the state of the economy. "Going forward, Global Insight expects private sector payrolls to grow by 2.1 million in 2011, 2.6 million in 2012, and 2.5 million in 2013. Projected cutbacks in the number of public sector employees, however, are expected to partially offset those private sector gains. In 2010, the number of state and local government employees fell by an estimated 208,000 positions. In 2011, those cutbacks are expected to total an additional 150,000 positions." In other words, private jobs are coming back, but state and local jobs are still being lost. Public-employee unions are on the mat. Walker is trying to make sure they don't get back up.

Source: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra...

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