Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tommy! Herb! Wisconsin's calling.

Sigh. Another night of television disrupted by the annoying recall campaign ads. You know them by heart.

The special interest grounds that want Governor Walker and friends given the boot say that class sizes are burgeoning, academic programs are shrinking and education overall is suffering as a result of the Republican legislative agenda.

On the flip side, the Walker backers say the ends justify the means, saying that our state’s finances are hunky dory all because collective bargaining rights of public employees were curtailed and unspecified “abuses” ended without raising taxes.

All of these messages insult Wisconsin voters. None of the ads address the real issue that should be on the table: the integrity of Wisconsin government.

That’s because the politicians and special interests don’t want us to think about that. After all, we might want to hold them all accountable.

Let’s do some quick fact checking.

The GOP agenda failed to create the jobs it promised. The state’s budget wasn’t balanced and we’re facing another deficit. The numbers have been widely reported. They don’t lie. But politicians and special interests do.

According to the Walkerites, we needed to end collective bargaining for public employees because of abuses by public sector unions, largely the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the largest teacher union.

In reality, the abuses were fairly narrow and easily cured without throwing the baby out with the water.

For example, school boards and taxpayers had a legitimate gripe over the insurance costs for teachers. The WEAC has its own insurance company, WEA Insurance Trust (WEAIT), and forced school districts to buy WEAIT insurance even if comparable (or better) coverage was available elsewhere at more favorable rates. This was wrong.

Also questionable was the practice of some prison guards who would call in sick and then work an overtime shift on the same day.

Where things got murky was when the Walkerites took aim on “making state employees pay their fair share of insurance and pension contributions.” Sounded good but was factually void.

About 50 years ago the state started trading wage increases for fringe benefits. In other words, instead of giving workers pay raises the state offered to apply that money toward insurance and pension costs. This benefited the state in several ways.

For example, had the state paid out higher wages, the state’s mandatory share of Social Security taxes would also go up. The state would lose the “float” on that money, reducing its cash flow and interest and investment earning capacity. And then the state would incur additional costs by giving the wage increases to workers and then immediately taking it back to pay for insurance and pension costs.

Forbes magazine is hardly the bastion of liberal thinking yet it correctly called the Walkerites out on this, saying what it really was is a wage cut. The suggestions that public employees were somehow getting a free ride were false as those benefits were part of the overall compensation package negotiated over decades.

In fact, Minnesota workers pay the contributions toward pension and insurance that Walker extracted. They also get higher wages.

Not only did Walker and friends unilaterally cut the pay of state workers but they made it virtually impossible for them to recoup the losses. No wonder why they’re infuriated.

WEAC and its friends also obfuscate the truth by confining their claims to the purported assault on education. True, many school districts are hurting, the university system and college students slammed and Wisconsin’s competitive edge in attracting industry weakened. On the other hand, some districts are faring better and school boards and taxpayers aren’t being held hostage by WEAIT.

Ironically, what the special interests on both sides aren't telling us is what the impact will be on Wisconsin’s future. Our neighbors in Iowa attracted a significant amount of clean high-technology industry and banking. Why? A big reason was a well-educated workforce. Reducing educational opportunities for young Wisconsinites, particularly at the college level, is simply not good for business and the state’s overall economic picture. And the insult on all Wisconsin voters is that we’re not hearing any serious debate on the real issues in the recall election.

Recalls are inherently extraordinary elections. Generally they’re used when it appears that an elected official has done something so serious that voters shouldn’t have to wait until the next regularly scheduled election to boot him or her out of office. You don’t go to a recall simply because you’re generally unhappy with an elected official or an isolated decision.

The real issues in this recall are the integrity of Wisconsin’s government, the tarnishing of our image and the need for voters to send a message to both parties that it’s time to pull in the reins on their abuses of power.

Reasonable people can disagree about the Walker agenda. The real issue is trying to derail 50 years of labor relations precedent in five days with limited public input. This was a significant abuse of the legislative process.

Now Republicans will say – and with some truth – that Democrats have done the same thing. Their claim isn’t entirely bogus – but the Democrats never went so far as to rewrite fundamental policy in a week. They rammed through a budget plan, not a rewrite of the system.

For Wisconsin voters, a state that once had an image for squeaky-clean government was blemished by such antics as influence peddling characterized by the famous spoof phone call revealing how Walker does business. Republicans will say that they didn’t start it – and they’re right. But if these abuses aren’t held in check now what will be Wisconsin’s future? Will this embolden future politicians to be even more insensitive to an open and honest legislative process?

While special interests will tout the virtues and lament the failures of the Walker agenda the real issue is the damage done to the integrity of the state’s government. A state legislature that holds local governments to a strict Open Meetings Law flaunts it at whim. This is not the Wisconsin we grew up with and, for me, not the one I want to live or die in. The real issue isn’t what the Walkerites did but rather how it was done and whether we want future politicians to do the same – or worse. Abuses of power are inherently appropriate reasons for a recall election.

Back in 1978 Wisconsin voters had a brief encounter with putting principle over party politics. The Democrats who controlled the state government at the time were labeled as “fat and arrogant” by none other than Miles McMillan, editor of the left-leaning Capital Times, who endorsed the rogue gubernatorial candidacy of Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus.

Dreyfus, a rotund university chancellor, had the audacity to challenge the Republican establishment which had anointed Bob Kasten as its choice to run against Acting Governor Marty Schreiber. Shunned by the party establishment, Dreyfus took his populist campaign to the people in a rickety bus with the motto, “Let the people decide.”

And decide we did. Dreyfus not only won the Republican primary – without massive infusion of special interest dollars – but also the November election, temporarily breathing new life in the Wisconsin GOP.

Lee Drefyus is dead and many Wisconsinites have no connection to his stunning upsets but that’s exactly what’s needed now – an outsider who can come in and stir up the independent voice of Wisconsin voters.

That’s not likely to happen. Both sides would view a modern-day Dreyfus as a threat to their way of life – and they’d be right. So that’s why we’re stuck with the usual cast of characters – Walker on the right and folks like Kathleen Falk on the left. Falk has already been endorsed by the WEAC which was probably the biggest gift Walker’s going to get. A liberal Dane County Democrat with her own allegiance to special interests isn’t going to tap into the ethical spine of independent Wisconsin voters.

It’s too idealistic and unrealistic to expect that another Lee Sherman Dreyfus will surface but that’s not to say that others can’t rise to the occasion.

For example, “for the good of Wisconsin” Tommy Thompson could give up, or at least put on hold, his silly idea of being elected to the United States Senate. Tommy was hardly a populist and he had his own alliances with special interests that only served to fuel successor Jim Doyle’s enhancement of the pay-to-play format. But Tommy was able to forge legislative alliances and the state prospered during his long tenure as governor. We could do worse – and have.

Tommy has a fantastic opportunity here. His message is simple: I’m here to bring Wisconsin back to prosperity and sanity. For Republicans, it’s a huge win. They get to stay in power and Tommy’s election would give them the green light to rescind the most offensive parts of the Walker agenda.

I think if Tommy ran in the recall election he’d win in a New York minute. He may not be perfect but he’s the devil we know as opposed to the one we elected the last time around and didn’t.

The Democrats also have a chance to stand up to save Wisconsin. They have a powerful horse in their stable – retiring Senator Herb Kohl, a man who is too rich to be bought. Kohl will come off as a voice of moderation and reason coming from a beloved businessman who also understands what it takes to make a buck.

Wisconsin voters have a chance to do what they did in 1978: send a message to the special interests. But who will be the messenger(s)?

Tommy…Herb…are you listening? Wisconsin is calling.