Scott Walker began his “fireside chat” broadcast live across Wisconsin last night by saying how much he appreciated the passionate, civil debate happening in his state, and that he respects everyone who chooses a career in government. Then he said that outside agitators were infiltrating Wisconsin and that state workers could either lose all their bargaining rights or lose their jobs.
So it wasn’t quite a reconciliation.
Protesters at the Capitol Rotunda made so much noise that they drowned out Walker throughout his 10-minute speech. But if they heard him, they would have found out that a) they don’t live in Wisconsin, and b) they don’t matter as much as the silent majority around the state. The money quote: “As more and more protesters come in from Nevada, Chicago and elsewhere, I’m not going to allow their voices to overwhelm the voices of the millions of taxpayers all across this state who know we’re doing the right thing. This is a decision that Wisconsin will make.” I don’t know specifically why Nevada was singled out, but to suggest that the movement in Madison is somehow “foreign,” aside from sounding like every Arab leader in the Middle East, belittles the opinions of every Wisconsinite who has camped out in the Capitol and shown up day after day.
Walker used the typical politician tactic of singling out individual testimonials to humanize his bid to break public employee unions, at one point even citing his own brother and sister-in-law, as examples of “hardworking taxpayers” who needed to be protected. See, his legislation isn’t aimed at state workers or unions at all, Walker said. It’s simply about dollars and cents. Left unsaid was the fact that the unions have agreed to the pension and health care concessions, and that Wisconsin’s pension fund is one of the healthiest in the country. Walker was still talking about how his brother and sister-in-law would “love a deal” like the public employees would get under his plan, as if that’s the source of their rejection.
Why, Walker asked, did he have to strip collective bargaining in a fiscal bill? “The system is broken,” he said, recalling times as Milwaukee County Executive when he couldn’t get “modest changes” to pension and health care benefits to balance the budget (he didn’t mention how he installed private security guards anyway, lost a court fight, and cost the city half a million dollars). He keeps harping on one example, of how schoolteachers could buy into the state health care plan to save money, when that could simply be part of a negotiated package. The goal here is clearly raw power, the desire to implement policy by fiat. In fact, stripping collective bargaining rights will cost the state $46 million in federal matching funds:
Budget referees and transportation officials in Wisconsin have informed Gov. Scott Walker (R) that if he were to pass his controversial anti-union legislation into law, he could be forfeiting tens of millions of dollars in federal funds for transportation.
Under an obscure provision of federal labor law, states risk losing federal funds should they eliminate “collective bargaining rights” that existed at the time when federal assistance was first granted. The provision, known as “protective arrangements” or “Section 13C arrangements,” is meant as a means of cushioning union (and even some non-union) members who, while working on local projects, are affected by federal grants.
It also could potentially hamstring governors like Walker who want dramatic changes to labor laws in their states. Wisconsin received $74 million in federal transit funds this fiscal year. Of that, $46.6 million would be put at risk should the collective-bargaining bill come to pass — in the process creating an even more difficult fiscal situation than the one that, ostensibly, compelled Walker to push the legislation in the first place.
Finally, Walker told Senate Democrats who have left the state to “do the job you were elected to do.” Funny, because stripping workers of their rights was not the job he was elected to do. Collective bargaining for public employees never came up in the campaign.
That’s when he issued the threat. “Failure to act on this budget repair bill means at least 1,500 state workers will be laid off before the end of June. If there’s no agreement by July 1, another 5-6,000 state workers as well as 5-6,000 local government employees would also be laid off.”
Mark Miller, the Democratic leader in the State Senate, responded. “To help us balance our budget and move forward, public workers stepped up and agreed to provide the Governor with what he sought – increased contributions for health care and pensions. All they have asked for in return is to maintain the rights they have had for over 50 years.”
So there’s an impasse. The Democrats refuse to sell out worker’s rights in Wisconsin. The Governor thinks he’s some kind of rock star. But there are signs of buckling. When Democrats in the State Assembly, which has taken up the bill, tried to refer the budget repair bill back to committee, they got one Republican vote. Senator Dale Schultz (R) plans to offer his amendment on the bill to sunset the collective bargaining restrictions after two years. These are small movements, and I don’t see a resolution before the Friday deadline that Walker has imposed. But they aren’t necessarily going in the Governor’s direction.