The nature of the dispute in Wisconsin

THE NATURE OF THE DISPUTE IN WISCONSIN…. To hear Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) tell it, he really doesn’t have much of a choice. The state’s facing a budget shortfall, and crushing public-sector labor unions will save the state’s finances.

It’s important to realize how very wrong this is. Indeed, what’s been largely lost in this week’s debate is that Walker inherited a pretty good fiscal situation from his Democratic predecessor — Wisconsin was on track to end the fiscal year with an extra $120 million in state coffers.

So why launch a union-busting crusade? Ezra Klein explained the situation nicely:

…The governor signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues. The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit. As Brian Beutler writes, “public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda.”

But even that’s not the full story here. Public employees aren’t being asked to make a one-time payment into the state’s coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn’t their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin’s budget picture that wasn’t their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.

That’s how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.

Much of the debate has been about some of the larger issues, and they’re well worth exploring. But the specifics of this dispute make all the difference — a far-right governor inherited sound state finances, made them worse on purpose, and now demands public employees fix his problem. While he’s at it, Walker hopes to engage in superfluous union-busting, not to improve the budget, but just because he feels like it.

In the meantime, state unions are ready to negotiate, and are even prepared to accept less pay, but the governor refuses to even talk to them.

Whether one is sympathetic to labor or not is almost beside the point. Walker’s antics are demonstrably irresponsible and impossible to defend.

This local editorial out of Madison drives the point home nicely:

There is no question that these are tough times, and they may require tough choices. But Gov. Scott Walker is not making tough choices. He is making political choices, and they are designed not to balance budgets but to improve his political position and that of his party. […]

The facts are not debatable. Because of the painful choices made by the previous Legislature, Wisconsin is in better shape fiscally than most states.

Wisconsin has lower unemployment than most states. Wisconsin has better prospects for maintaining great schools, great public services and a great quality of life than most states, even in turbulent economic times.

Unfortunately, Walker has a political agenda that relies on the fantasy that Wisconsin is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Walker is not interested in balanced budgets, efficient government or meaningful job creation. Walker is interested in gaming the system to benefit his political allies and campaign contributors.

To fall for this cynical charade is to ignore reality.