Monday, January 30, 2012
Writing at City Journal, Christian Schneider reports on the state of Wisconsin's public services about a year after Governor Scott Walker succeeded in enacting "budget repair" measures that greatly limited the powers of public sector employee unions to dictate terms to its employer. While I personally don't think that the government should be performing most of these services, particularly education, it is nevertheless instructive to see the dire predictions of service disruptions and massive layoffs (made by unions and sympathetic politicians) put to the lie by the passage of time.
The collective-bargaining component of Walker's plan has yielded especially large financial dividends for school districts. Before the reform, many districts' annual union contracts required them to buy health insurance from WEA Trust, a nonprofit affiliated with the state's largest teachers' union. Once the reform limited collective bargaining to wage negotiations, districts could eliminate that requirement from their contracts and start bidding for health care on the open market. When the Appleton School District put its health-insurance contract up for bid, for instance, WEA Trust suddenly lowered its rates and promised to match any competitor's price. Appleton will save $3 million during the current school year.Schneider reports further that polling shows a large majority of Wisconsonites consider the state's education system to be at least as good as it was last March; and that union political activity has been affected by the realization that, "public-sector collective bargaining [hasn't been] the wedge issue that [the unions] expected" it to be. (This is in addition to the unions having to get outside funds to pay for political ads.) Both of these are indications that, although the governor himself has a weak approval rating, his measures have neither meant political suicide for himself nor his party.
At the outset of the public-union standoff, educators had made dire predictions that Walker's reforms would force schools to fire teachers. In February, to take one example, Madison School District Superintendent Dan Nerad predicted that 289 teachers in his district would be laid off. Walker insisted that his reforms were actually a job-retention program: by accepting small concessions in health and pension benefits, he argued, school districts would be able to spare hundreds of teachers' jobs. The argument proved sound. So far, Nerad's district has laid off no teachers at all, a pattern that has held in many of the state's other large school districts. No teachers were laid off in Beloit and LaCrosse; Eau Claire saw a reduction of two teachers, while Racine and Wausau each laid off one. The Wauwatosa School District, which faced a $6.5 million shortfall, anticipated slashing 100 jobs -- yet the new pension and health contributions saved them all.
While Walker's measure really represents just a slight loosening of the government's stranglehold on his state's economy, this article offers a lesson to the timid Republican party, for whom enacting even this measure took what passes for courage among today's politicians. Its lessons are also worth remembering for anyone who may need help convincing voters or legislators to confront organized leftist pressure on the way to increasing economic freedom in the future.