Journal Sentinel Backs Walker’s Reform Effort – Fighting Union Monopoly Power Not For The Squeamish!

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major newspaper in Wisconsin is backing Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to reform the runaway power of government workers unions:

Restoring Wisconsin to fiscal health is not for the squeamish. The medicine is going to be bitter. Gov. Scott Walker’s proposals to strip state employee unions of much of their bargaining power illustrates just how bitter.

But Walker is right to do this. He must insist that state workers pay a bigger share of their benefits. And he’s right to take steps to compel them to do so.

The governor is overreaching in some respects. And even if he wins the bruising fight to come in the state Capitol, he risks alienating broad swaths of independent voters. But Walker must fill a gaping budget hole of $137 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30 and a much larger imbalance in the next two-year budget. Something has to give.

Walker’s proposals affect virtually every unionized public worker in the state, at both the state and municipal levels. But the alternative to trimming benefits is laying off thousands of workers. The state, not to mention the economy, is better served by keeping as many of its workers on board as possible, albeit at a lower cost. Walker estimates his proposals will save the state $30 million between now and June 30 and $300 million over the course of the next two-year budget. That doesn’t count savings at the local level, which should help make up for expected cuts in state aid.

Our analysis:

  • Under Walker’s plan, state workers would contribute 5.8% of their pay to their pensions and at least 12.6% of the cost of their health care premiums. State workers still would have a better deal than most workers – this plan is fair to them and to taxpayers. But while the state should control benefit packages, unions should retain the right to bargain on other issues.
  • The governor would limit wage increases to the rate of inflation, unless voters approve an increase by referendum. In addition, unions would be required to take an annual vote to maintain their status, and public employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues. If the point is to balance the budget, these provisions are not needed.
  • Another proposal would exempt the Wisconsin Troopers’ Association and unions representing police and firefighters. Some public safety unions endorsed Walker when he ran last fall. Walker is hedging because he is worried about possible job actions – he probably should worry – but all unions should be forced to take the same medicine. No political favors.
  • Walker would refinance state debt to push principal payments into the future and save $165 million in this fiscal year. This would free up money to help pay $58.7 million owed to Minnesota after an income tax agreement cratered and to repay the $200 million owed to a medical malpractice fund that was illegally raided in 2007. A good idea.
  • Another proposal would give the state Department of Health Services the ability to change the state’s Medicaid health programs for the poor. Walker needs to ensure that the most vulnerable are cared for, but some changes in these programs are required.
  • Civil service positions, such as chief legal counsel, public information officer and legislative liaison, would become political appointments. We understand that Walker wants to clean house of Doyle loyalists, but this doesn’t need to be part of a budget repair bill. If it’s such a good idea, debate it as part of a separate bill.

While we may quibble over some of the details, Walker’s decision to force a showdown with organized labor is long overdue. The state must rein in its legacy costs. As Walker told the Editorial Board Friday:

“These are things that frankly GM and Chrysler should have gotten a better handle on, and they wouldn’t have been in the problems they got into.”

He’s right, and it’s about time.