Sunday, March 6, 2011

Stuck in the middle?

Sometimes the middle can be elusive, even though you know it's got to be there.  Somewhere.

Right now, the state of Wisconsin is just plain stuck, largely because they're not in the middle.  Well, "they" might be, but the two extremes (which may not be all that extreme, but I'll get to that in a minute) are not in the middle.

To be fair, the discussion, or debate, or confrontation, or whatever you want to call it, isn't about money.  I'm not certain that it ever was, even though that's the "official story" from one side.  So, here's my take on all of this.

The Wisconsin state budget, like almost all state budgets, is in trouble.  Why?  In the most basic terms, it's because the state relies heavily upon a sales tax for income, and when the economy goes down, so does sales tax revenue.  People retreat to buy food and the basics, and a lot of those things are tax exempt.  If you aren't buying designer jeans, or eating out a lot, the state is going to get less money.  It's that simple.  Until the economy, which means jobs, rebound, that probably won't change.

So, if you're the State, you have fewer dollars to spend.  Pretty simple, really.

Now, if that's true, then you need to look through the budget and start deciding what you won't be able to do.  You can eliminate completely, or do "less."  No movies at all, or just one mocha a week rather than five.

Sounds simple, right?  It is, except there are some things that aren't "optional."  In this case, you have employees who work under contracts, and you can't just unilaterally change them.  At least, you're not supposed to be able to do that.  You could, however, change the law under which those contracts operate, and therein appears the problem.

Now, according to what I've seen and read, the Governor wants to help balance the budget by asking (demanding, requiring, dictating) that state employees, covered by union-negotiated contracts, pay a higher percentage of their benefit costs and make similar changes to their retirement programs.  The specifics, at least for this discussion, don't really matter too much.  Normally those would be things discussed at the bargaining table, but he's facing a time crunch and decided to go the "change the law" route instead.

It's hardly surprising that employees and their union leadership don't think much of that.  It would be amazing if they did.

Various union people have said that they accept the need to make those changes, and several have said they would/will/have agreed to the dollars involved.  I haven't found anywhere that says that in some contractual context, but I'll assume it's accurate.

But, the bill proposed also strips the unions of the ability to bargain for things like that in the future.  Those provisions have nothing to do with balancing the budget.  They may or may not be "rights" but they aren't part of making the dollars work right now.  His insistence that this part of the bill be included now suggests a much larger agenda, and I truly don't see the point...unless:

The Governor and legislature have a legal obligation to balance the budget, so they pretty much have to do something.  Since this bill, or something like it, must be passed, it is evident that the Governor believes he can use that as a lever to force something else to happen also.

It's too easy to see the obvious, and I'm back to advocating what I wrote in Chapter 8.  Single issue bills are just as valid at the State level as they are at the Federal level.  If you want to propose something, by all means propose it, but don't sneak it into something else, just to hide the effects or gain support which wouldn't otherwise exist.


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