The New Wisconsin Idea

By: Guest Authors

By: Richard Billies

First attributed to University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise in 1904, the Wisconsin Idea is the principle that education should influence and improve people’s lives beyond the university classroom. For more than 100 years, this idea has guided the university’s work.

A new Wisconsin Idea has started in very same place: Madison, Wisconsin. Sometimes referred to as the Peoples Republic of Madison, this Midwestern state capitol has been transformed to ground zero in the battle for the fiscal health of America.

Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed a bill to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public workers and have them pay a portion of their pension and health-care costs. To set things straight here are the points covered in the bill:

• Limits collective bargaining to the subject of base wage and limits base wage increases to a percentage no greater than the percentage change in the consumer price index
• Prohibits collective bargaining on matters not permitted under the Wisconsin Municipal Employment Relations Act
• Requires an initial certification election in April 2011 to determine whether a majority of bargaining unit employees still want to be represented by an existing union. If a union receives less than 51 percent of votes actually cast, then at the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement the union would be decertified. Certification elections of organized public sector employers would be held thereafter on an annual basis.
• Limits union contracts to one year in length
• Prohibits covered employers from collecting union dues through salary deductions. A union would have to collect its dues money directly from employees
• Allows employees to stay in a union without paying union dues
• Eliminates collective bargaining for employees of the University of Wisconsin System, UW Hospitals and Clinics Authority, and certain home care and child care providers
• Requires participating employees to contribute one-half of all actuarially required retirement contributions as determined by the Employee Trust Funds Board
• Prohibits covered employers from paying any employee required contribution
• Prohibits covered employers from paying, after 2011, more than 88 percent of the average premium cost of plans offered in the tier with the lowest employee premium cost
• Authorizes covered employers to discharge any state employee who fails to report to work as scheduled for any three unexcused working days during a state of emergency or who participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit-down, stay-in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the operations or services of state government, including mass resignations or sick calls

After all of the demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, hand-wringing and the deliberate defiance of the Democrat states senators this bill will pass and be signed. This bill doesn’t strike at the workers who have indicated that they could accept the pension and health-care cost contributions. It does decapitate the power of the public sector unions. Why would the workers need a union if their only role is to negotiate wages within the confines of a tightly restricted structure? If the unions lose this battle (and they will) they would lose the collection of dues by the government entity and be forced to hold annual elections as the bargaining agent for workers. The attrition of workers from the union structure would weaken their financial and personnel muscle in elections. This will bode ill for both the state and national Democrat parties. More importantly, there are many other state governors and their legislatures watching. Indiana already has a bill in the works; as does Ohio, Tennessee and Idaho to name a few states. The Democrat governors of New York and California both realize that they have the same public sector worker issues, particularly due to high pensions and benefits. They need to reorganize their fiscal houses or face more serious problems. California is spending $3 billion per year on retiree pensions; money that comes on top of a $20 billion budget shortfall. According to the Wall Street Journal the New York State budget deficit for FY 2012 (starting April 1, 2011) is $9 billion. Health care and pension costs are soaring, making it even harder for public officials nationwide to close massive budget gaps. Forty-four states and Washington, D.C. are facing a total shortfall of $125 billion for fiscal 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The idea that has begun in once-progressive Wisconsin will spread across our country like a wildfire. American taxpayers and political leaders at the state and local levels are realizing that the root of many of our nations’ fiscal ills are due to out-of-control pension and benefit costs. The people of pay the bills no longer want to subsidize an upper class of public sector workers with increasingly higher taxes and fees. The state that in 1959 allowed collective bargaining by public sector workers now realizes that fifty-two years later there needs to be a new bargain with the public employees. The rest of the country may soon follow.

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