By Max Olin and Clay Schmidt
On Feb. 11, Gov. Scott Walker introduced his “Budget Repair Bill.” An immediate press release from the governor’s office states that an “emergency measure is needed to balance the state budget and give government the tools to manage during economic crisis. The state of Wisconsin is facing an immediate deficit of $137 million for the current fiscal year which ends July 1.”
Since Feb. 11, downtown Madison has peacefully erupted into a protest epicenter, 14 Democratic senators from all over Wisconsin may or may not be anywhere in the United States, and Gov. Walker has not only been crank called but also asked to leave a restaurant in downtown Madison.
Glenn Beck is convinced communists are manipulating protesters in Madison while Jon Stewart has deemed the protesters the antithesis of the Tea Party. However, both of these commentators and the sensational news reports coming out of Madison are focusing on the protesters rather than the fundamental proposals of the bill as a whole. Understanding the bill is essential to understanding the protest.
A lot of the rhetoric surrounding the protests focuses on the pay and benefit cuts that public workers would take under the proposed bill. Walker himself has framed the bill as a purely financial manner. “Bringing government employee benefits closer to the private sector … [will] result in savings of approximately $30 million in the remaining few months of the current fiscal year.” However, the unions have tried to make it explicitly clear that they are willing to compromise by taking the proposed cuts but are unwilling to accept the aspects of the bill that deconstruct collective bargaining, suggesting that Walker’s true motive is union busting.
As a whole, the bill contains 36 distinct items, but only 14 directly affect the state’s general fund, leaving 22 potentially questionable items. Upon examining the bill, there are five separate issues that it addresses: health services, public employee benefits, management of state employees, collective bargaining, and no-bid sales of power plants and University of Wisconsin property.
In regards to health services and benefit packages, Gov. Walker is proposing to institute three agencies to oversee studies on how to potentially consolidate group packages and increase contributions toward these and retirement benefits. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that even taking health plans and retirement benefits into consideration, private employees make more on average than public employees. An overlooked item pertaining to medical assistance studies are the opportunities they create for secretary of the Department of Health, an appointee of the governor, to cut medical benefits to poor people. The current secretary of the Dept. of Health is a former employee of a very conservative think tank.
In regard to governor-appointed positions, there is a provision in the bill that allows the governor to replace classified positions as he sees fit, something that would drastically undermine the civil service system. Also in regard to the management of public employees, the governor would have the ability to terminate persons who fail to do a number of things, one of them being the failure of showing up to work three days in a row. This would solidify unions’ or other public employees’ inability to strike after the bill is passed.
The issue causing the most controversy is the elimination of the collective bargaining rights of public employees. This removes a union’s ability to collectively negotiate with the state for pay, benefits, and work conditions, effectively rendering the unions superfluous and removing the incentives for people to join unions in the first place. With the sheer size of the unions’ constituencies, it would render entire demographics of predominantly working-class citizens voiceless. The main objective of collective bargaining is to consolidate and package the concerns of a group of persons so that they may be more easily represented on larger, governmental scales. There are no other lobbying groups in the United States that are comprised of the same stratified demographics.
Another critical provision of the bill allows for no-bid sales of state-owned power plants. This has concerned some because two large supporters of Walker’s campaign were the libertarian Koch brothers, who already own a number of power plants in Wisconsin. The Department of Administration controls who can buy the power plants and the amount for which they sell; they only need the approval of the building commission.