Protesting public workers in Wisconsin plan to continue demonstrating this week against Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) plan to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, as the state’s Republican lawmakers said that they will move forward with their agenda in the absence of state Democrats (who have set up shop in Illinois, to deny the state Senate a quorum). Walker has thus far refused multiple compromises offered by both the workers themselves and a member of his own party, insisting that any deal include an elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Walker’s stated reason for wanting to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees is Wisconsin’s economic woes. Last night, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R-WI) appeared on Fox News to claim that Walker’s union-busting approach is necessary because “we’re broke.” “Our governor, Scott Walker, has chosen to do the responsible thing and tell the truth to the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin, and balance this budget in a sound way,” she said:
We just can’t afford it. We’re not joking when we say that we’re broke. We don’t have any money to negotiate with. [...] Wisconsin is proud to be a leader here. I think Gov. Scott Walker has done a tremendous job blaxing a trail when it comes to frugality and moderation as we approach a fiscal crisis. Because we know that Wisconsin is certainly not the only state facing this kind of deep budget crisis.
We have a $3.6 billion, with a b, deficit coming up in our next biennium. Right now, you know that for our budget repair bill we’re facing a $137 million hole. That’s what we need to fix, and that’s what states around the nation are looking to fix. Some are choosing to fix it by raising taxes. We know that our hard-working families in Wisconsin can’t afford that in the middle of the deepest economic recession in generations, and so our governor, Scott Walker, has chosen to do the responsible thing and tell the truth to the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin, and balance this budget in a sound way.
Playing up budget woes during a time of high economic anxiety may make political sense, but the numbers don’t support Kleefisch and Walker’s claims. While Kleefisch cites a $3.6 billion deficit in the next state budget period as a justification for attacking workers’ rights, it was Walker who pushed through a package of tax cuts that have significantly worsened the state’s fiscal standing in that very timeframe. “Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond [his] control,” said Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts.”
Even if Walker hadn’t personally made the fiscal situation in his state much worse, stripping workers of collective bargaining rights won’t actually make it any better, saving taxpayers “almost nothing.” As John Sides pointed out, states with higher rates of unionization do not have higher budget deficits, while Wisconsin public employees already make substantially less money than their private sector counterparts. Wisconsin workers have already agreed to concessions on pay and benefits, so long as they retain their collective bargaining rights.
All in all, Walker and Kleefisch are using the guise of a budget crisis to push forward an ideological assault on unions and workers. Walker may want to remember that the last time he went union-busting in this manner, when he was Milwaukee County Executive in 2009, it ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.