Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Budget Repair Bill, Act I

The first act in the budget repair bill debate is about to end. I have a feeling that Gov. Scott Walker's budget unveiling today will mark the start of the second act, because I think the voices of opposition and pressure from the Republicans will significantly increase with what is expected to be a very controversial budget. With that in mind, I thought I would recap the current major issues with the budget repair bill before the media switches some of their focus to new issues.

Collective bargaining rights, though most important, shouldn't be our only point of negotiation. There are other provisions in the budget repair bill that we should be concerned with as well.
  • The bill increases the power of the governor to declare a state of "emergency" including defining what an "emergency" is and extending the limit from less than 1 year to 4 years.
  • Under such a state of emergency, the administration would be able to do just about anything they want to state health programs including Medicaid and BadgerCare without public debate or legislative approval. Many believe the extended timeline and this provision signal plans by Walker to unilaterally make significant changes to these programs.
  • The bill allows the governor to sell any state-owned power plants to private companies without first getting bids for the plants to ensure the state is getting the best deal.
  • The bill includes other union-busting provisions such as demanding annual votes for certification
  • The reduction in take-home for most public employees may be necessary at this time, but we should consider who's taking the greater share of the pain. Many reports and studies have shown that over the past few decades more people have moved from middle-class to lower-class while those in the upper echelon have increased their savings. This is due in major part to the reduction of unions in the private sector and wages across the board. Will tax cuts to the rich really stimulate the economy more than tax cuts or extra money in the hands of those who really need it and will immediately spend it?
    • A good question to ask yourself is, why didn't I become a teacher or policeman, or other public worker? Most of us, including myself, will answer that by saying those jobs don't pay enough.
    • If fewer people, especially good people, find these jobs attractive, will our schools or lives improve?

If there are other issues, let me know and I'll add them here.

A little summary of what I believe were the major happenings in Act I:

State polls have shown consistent strong opposition to Walker's plans to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Protesters have been exceptionally peaceful, receiving thanks from law enforcement more than once, with only a few minor arrests in over two weeks. This, even though many days there were well over 50,000 protesters, and at least one day had over 100,000 showing their support for Wisconsin workers at the Capitol building. Peace is the protesters' true weapon, and by continuing to be peaceful and toning down the few extreme signs that get overplay on some media outlets the protesters will prevail.

After the third day of major protests, when it was clear there was nothing the Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate could do to stop a vote on the budget repair bill, the 14 senators fled the state. Since then, the Wisconsin 14 have been holding regular meetings over the phone with Republican colleagues, talking with press and constituents, all of the things a senator does, including vote over the phone (I'll find a reference if someone requests). It's clear the Democrats are following the law or the Republicans wouldn't be resorting to tactics such as cutting off copy machine access at the Capitol in order to try to force the 14 back.

During the first week of protests the public employees agreed to the financial concessions necessary to balance the state's budget if they would keep their collective bargaining rights. However, Walker won't accept the compromise, saying their rights must be stripped in order to balance the budget. He says this even though, as an example, Texas doesn't allow collective bargaining for public employees and has a projected two-year debt nearly 8 times that of Wisconsin. So collective bargaining for public employees cannot be the cause of budget shortfalls.

Firefighters and police officers, even though they aren't under attack by the budget repair bill, have been standing alongside teachers, snow plow drivers and other public workers since the first day of protests. In a huge display of solidarity, they even offered to take the same financial concessions to save the rights of the other public workers. Oddly, the Republicans haven't accepted this compromise.

Gov. Scott Walker has repeatedly tried to ignore the voices of the protesters by saying that they don't represent the voices of most of the tax payers in Wisconsin and implying that most are from out of state who were brought in by "union bosses," but we know better.

Gov. Scott Walker received a prank call from a blogger posing as David Koch, one of the major financiers of Americans for Prosperity who has now run ads in support of Walker's budget repair bill. Even though Walker has said he hasn't talked to the unions or the Wisconsin 14, he talked with this faux David Koch for nearly 20 minutes, saying many things that made people wonder if he had violated any ethics laws.

The Democrats in the Wisconsin State Assembly introduced an alternative budget repair bill that, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, saved $11 million more than Walker's bill and kept collective bargaining rights. However, but not surprisingly, the bill didn't pass. This bill was among the mounting evidence that the budget repair bill had little to do with money and a lot to do with reducing the rights of public employees.

The Republicans in the Assembly tricked the Democrats into allowing them to unexpectedly cut off debate on the budget repair bill, and the bill was passed on to the Senate. Fortunately for the thousands of public employees who face losing their rights in this state, the Wisconsin 14 have continued to work from beyond its borders.

The Capitol building has been locked down from all protesters except those who have remained since the lock-down Sunday evening. We were told the building needed to be cleared for cleaning, but the building hasn't been cleared and cleaning has proceeded. No one is exactly sure why the building is being locked down or why it wasn't cleared, but it's commonly believed that Walker doesn't want any opposing public near cameras when he gives his budget address.

Gov. Scott Walker has come under legal scrutiny lately. As I stated before, it's possible the governor has violated ethics laws as well as other laws. At least one union has sued the governor for unfair labor practices. Also, the Milwaukee City Attorney, who is said to lean conservative, believes the budget repair bill is unconstitutional. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has written a letter to Walker asking him to request a legal opinion from the state Attorney General. Both "complaints" seem to have some legal standing. So, we'll have to keep watching for developments.

Gov. Scott Walker says that if the Wisconsin 14 don't return today the state will lose money and people will lose jobs. Unfortunately for Walker, he's not being truthful. The money is $165 million that Walker plans to refinance, as in "kick the can down the road," costing the state upwards of $20 million according to various reports. So that isn't much incentive for the Wisconsin 14 to come back, and any layoffs due to the budget won't begin until June. So there's no juice to that threat unless Walker wants to introduce additional layoffs because he can't strip their rights. I wouldn't hold your breathe on the Senate Democrats returning today unless the Republicans have compromised.

Either way, today should be interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Very clear description of what's happened and what's ahead.

    One of the interesting things I've seen come out of all of this is how "blame" can be placed and used to sway people. Walker has over and over repeated that if the WI 14 don't return, then it's their fault that people will be laid off, we'll loose money saving options, etc.

    What we need is some advocate with the same strong voice that counters that it's Walker's fault for not doing his job and coming to the table. That voice needs to be strong and counter and then drown out Walker.