Wisconsin fiscal sanity, from sea to shining sea?

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Franklin D. Roosevelt had at least one fear besides fear itself: irresponsible public-sector unions. Wisconsin isn't the only state to prove his fear justified.

In a 1937 letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees (much-quoted since the 2010 elections), Roosevelt warned that "collective bargaining ... cannot be transplanted into public service" and claimed that "the very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials ... to bind the employer" -- that is, "the whole people" -- in contract negotiations.

Roosevelt was wrong about that last bit: Through the decades, politicians elected to represent the interests of "the whole people" have in fact colluded with public sector unions to "bind" the rest of us to disastrous contracts. In state after state, in exchange for donations culled from mandatory union dues, legislators have given government employees -- including themselves -- benefits and pensions so lavish that, as the bills now come due, they are bleeding us less-privileged taxpayers dry.

In 2010 Wisconsin voters elected officials with the courage to heed Roosevelt's wisdom and rein in the worst of these abuses. Their effort outraged the union minority, whose membership dues have now funded a massive recall campaign.

What's hanging in the balance in Tuesday's recall election is not so much Gov. Scott Walker and the targeted Republican legislators' fate -- though they deserve to survive this challenge. And it's not the continuation of Mr. Walker & Company's reforms: His once-and-again Democratic challenger Tom Barrett has said they didn't go far enough.

What's really at stake in Wisconsin is the well-being of dozens of other states where reformers have not yet prevailed -- and the political mojo, come November, to bring about fiscal sanity for the entire country.

Wisconsin itself is safe -- for the time being. No matter what Tuesday's outcome, there won't be any Restoration-style folly. Balanced budgets, lower health care costs and lower taxes statewide have made that well nigh impossible.

And Mr. Walker's opponent is one of the most notable beneficiaries of these reforms.

Back in 2011, when the governor first proposed changes to public employees' collective bargaining rights, all hell broke loose. Protestors invaded the state capitol building and camped out for weeks. Democratic legislators fled to Illinois to deny the Republican majority a quorum. The national media ate it up.

But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom Mr. Walker had just defeated and now faces again in the recall, was apparently the first to point out that if the Republicans decoupled fiscal items from the reform legislation, they wouldn't need the higher quorum required by Senate rules for budgetary votes. They could reform the state without the Democrats.

When the Republicans did exactly that, their reforms included requiring public employees to contribute much more to their health insurance costs and their pensions (though still considerably less than private sector employees contribute, if they even have such benefits), saving an estimated $724 million statewide.

But two other changes have had an enormous political and financial impact. First, now that union dues are no longer mandatory, union membership has dropped -- by as much as 50 percent. Union coffers are running low, which makes generous donations to sympathetic pols difficult -- not to mention, pointless.

On the fiscal front, public sector administrators at every level are now free to choose any health insurance provider, not the one pre-selected by the union. This change has predictably and dramatically lowered costs. It has saved $19 million just in Milwaukee -- where, yes, Mayor Barrett had urged the legislature not to exempt police and firefighters' unions from the reforms.

During the Democrats' race to face Gov. Walker in the recall, Mr. Barrett declined to promise to roll back the Republicans' reforms. (Given the balanced budgets and lower taxes being experienced statewide, he'd be crazy to.) Understandably, he wasn't the unions' choice, but he won anyway.

If he's not going to return Wisconsin to its pre-Walker era, the hard left has little to gain from his victory -- except the sweetness of revenge.

Why then is a Democrat of President Bill Clinton's stature campaigning for him? And why are President Barack Obama and the national media ignoring a battle they were only too happy to comment on a year ago?

Because they're losing. Polls show Mr. Barrett down by 5 or 6 points, and only a fraction of registered Democrats rate the collective bargaining issue their top priority. With signs this ominous, only a figure as popular as Mr. Clinton could possibly help.

But what's bad for the Democratic-union cabal is good news for the rest of the country. Fiscal sanity and shared responsibility are winning. With Wisconsin's wind in our sails, there may even be hope for California.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com. First Published June 4, 2012 12:00 AM


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