Election results from Wisconsin and the California cities of San Jose and San Diego communicate a simple message that is likely to be misunderstood by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
The short version: Voters everywhere are finally starting to realize that municipalities, states, and (here's hoping) the federal government are out of money. That's the real message of the major contests last night.
It's not particularly ideological, though both winners and losers will likely take it that way. Democrats, liberals, and pro-union forces will bitch and moan about "outside money," the effect of Citizens United, the decimation of the working man and the middle class. Republicans, conservatives, and anti-union types will chest-bump each other about how they're taking the country back from leftists who want to devote more school lessons to Lenin than George Washington and can now feel safe about pushing traditional values and whatnot.
None of this is the case. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker was targeted for a recall because he pushed to limit collective bargaining of teachers and public workers other than cops and firefighters. But the stripping of union power was incidental to what Badger State voters actually wanted, which was for public employees (including cops and firemen) to pay more for their health care and retirement benefits. Wisconsin faced a multi-billion budget deficit and getting public-sector workers to kick in more for their benefits, which are relatively plush compared to analogous private-sector workers, helped close the gap. The Reason-Rupe Poll of Wisconsin adults found that about 70 percent of residents thought that made sense, even though a plurality of them had favorable opinions toward public employee unions. By and large, voters care less about "unions" and more about whether they feel like they're paying too much for services.
In San Diego and San Jose, the second- and third-largest cities in California, roughly 70 percent of voters favored putting new public-sector workers into 401(k)-style retirement plans. This is no small thing. The main upside of such defined-contribution plans is that it caps what taxpayers are on the hook for and it does away with bullshit annual returns for retirees that typically far outpace the market. San Diego and San Jose, like the state of which they are part, are tight on cash and pension costs are a major reason. From Business Week's accounting:
In San Diego, the eighth-largest U.S. city with 1.3 million residents, officials budgeted $233.6 million for retiree benefits this year, up from $87 million in 2004, according to budget documents. The city’s share of retirement costs would have grown by $100 million over 10 years without the proposed changes in the ballot measure.
In San Jose, the 10th-largest U.S. city with 946,000 residents, annual retirement costs increased to $245 million from $73 million in the past decade, according to ballot measure supporters. Pensions now account for more than 50 percent of city payroll, and more than 20 percent of the general fund, backers said.
Golden State residents haven't suddenly turned vengeful toward Democrats or union members any more than residents in Wisconsin have (by the Reason-Rupe Poll and other surveys, President Obama enjoys a 10-point lead over presumptive GOP candidate Mitt Romney). And for all the talk that Gov. Walker slashed spending, the two-year budget he passed actually increases total spending 3 percent while holding taxes essentially flat (watch vid below). And government workers after Act 10, the law that triggered Walker's recall, are still pulling in far more than comparable private-sector workers.
Last night's results - and moves by other Democratic governors such as New York's Andrew Cuomo - suggest that the voting public is finally getting the message that we can't keep spending far more than we take in at every level of government and that we can't keep promising more and more expensive benefits for public workers who are already earning more in salary than their private-sector counterparts. That's tremendously good news and it represents the triumph of reality over ideology.
But it doesn't mean that some sort of massive partisan realignment is upon us and politicos who think it does won't be in a very good position to speak meaningfully to voters in the coming months.