Scott Walker's Recall Is Not About Wisconsin


Scott Walker's fate will be sealed on Tuesday when Wisconsinites head to the polls and vote in the special recall election. Odds so far are that he'll survive. The Reason-Rupe poll last week gave him an eight-point edge over his opponent, Tom Barrett. And the current RCP average puts his lead at 6.6 points. However, regardless of whether Walker wins or loses, it's likely over for public unions in Wisconsin (unless they manage to convince the state Supreme Court in a pending lawsuit that Walker's reforms deserve to be thrown out on equality grounds because they don't apply to firefighter and police unions). The real after effects of his fate will be felt outside the Badger State.

Here's why.

Walker's collective bargaining reforms have produced fiscal benefits so palpable across Wisconsin that even if Barrett wins, he will be hard pressed to undo these reforms without running into massive taxpayer resistance. Walker has required public employees to cough up more toward their own pension and health care costs and limited union contract negotiations only to wages—putting benefits, working conditions and the kitchen sink off limits. All of this has given school districts and municipalities' new tools to deal with cut backs in state revenue sharing without massive layoffs of government employees or one-time budgetary fixes. In the past the state had plugged shortfalls by illegally raiding other funds and raising "funny money." For example, notes a report by the Heartland Institute:

…to fix deficits in the 2001–02 budget, the state securitized about $1.5 billion in tobacco litigation settlement payments scheduled to come in through 2017, in return for a lump sum payment of about $1.2 billion. In those two years, all of the tobacco settlement money went into the general fund, where it was used for general purposes and for shared state revenue payments to counties and municipalities. Sixteen years' worth of tobacco money thus vanished into the black hole of the general fund.

 But now for the first time in years, not only did the state plug its $3.6 billion biennial deficit without tax increases and such cheap shenanigans. It also restored a long-term structural balance. Speaking of taxes, under business as usual scenarios, property taxes for the average Wisconsin homeowner would have increased by $700 to balance the budget. Now, however, notes Heartland, even without socking homeowners, Wisconsin's department of revenue predicts the state will have a $154 million budget surplus by the end of the budget period in 2013 and will place half of it in the state's Rainy Day Fund.

All this means that Walker's reforms are a precious gift to taxpayers that Barrett will reject only at his political peril. Barrett understands this having himself suffered mightily from union-instigated fiscal problems as mayor of Milwaukee. That's why, through most of his primary campaign, he refused to promise to restore the collective bargaining rights of public employees if elected, one reason why Kathleen Falk and not he was the union's preferred candidate.

However, unless he restores these rights, there is no reason for public employees to pay union dues given that, among Walker's reforms, is a ban on automatic deductions from government employee pay checks. Now employees have to affirmatively instruct the state to withhold dues, something that they are increasingly opting not to do. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the state's second-largest public-sector union after the National Education Association, which represents teachers—fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011, according to a person who has viewed Afscme's figures.

Much of that decline came from Afscme Council 24, which represents Wisconsin state workers, whose membership plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year.

Why are state workers dropping their membership? Here's what one of them told the WSJ:

Tina Pocernich, a researcher at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, was a dues-paying union member for 15 years. But after the Walker law went into effect she told the American Federation of Teachers she wanted out.

It was a hard decision for me to make," said Ms. Pocernich, a 44-year-old mother of five, who left the union in March. "But there's nothing the union can do anymore.

All of this suggests that Walker's reforms are a fait accompli that will spell the end of Wisconsin's public unions regardless of whether he stays or goes. So why is Big Labor emptying out its deep pockets to defeat him? Because it wants to signal to other governors not to try his tricks at home. By the same token, if he survives its onslaught and lives to tell the tale, he'll signal that Big Labor is just not as formidable a foe as it used to be and his reforms will likely spread.