On Finally Taming Government Union Costs

As we consider the future of state employee unions in Wisconsin, it’s worth remembering that we once contemplated that there would be far fewer employees consuming your tax dollars. In 2002, just eight years ago, a candidate for governor even promised to actually reduce the size of the state workforce when it was still 67,240 employees.

He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I think we should be trying to get back to the level that (former Gov.) Tommy (Thompson) had, when he took over in the 1980s – it’s about 15,000 additional employees hired during this time. I’m setting that target right now.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put the estimated cut a little lower at 10,261.

So who was that crazy radical right-winger with the crackpot idea of saving the state taxpayers’ money by shrinking the size of the state employee workforce?

Who was that Tea Party fanatic even before there was a Tea Party movement?

It was Wisconsin Attorney General Jim Doyle, who was still running for the Democratic nomination for governor against Milwaukee Congressman Tom Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Despite the anger of the state employee unions (although nobody compared Doyle to a slave owner), Doyle did win his party’s nomination and went on to win the general election.

Eight years later, Wisconsin has 69,356 state employees, or 2,116 more employees than when Doyle announced his goal of reducing the state work force.

Coincidentally, at the same time Doyle was talking about cutting 15,000 state jobs, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker was in the process of creating his first county budget, the first of eight proposed budgets without an increase in the tax levy. Along the way, Walker fought with the county employee unions to get them to increase their contributions to their pensions and to their health care while the overall headcount of county employees went down.

The Public Policy Forum calculates the number of full-time Milwaukee County employees shrunk from 7,416 in 2001 to 5,457 in 2010, a reduction of over 26%.

Now Governor-elect Walker has asked state employee unions to contribute a modest 5% of their pay towards their pensions and up to 12% for their health care premiums. Walker also asked the state legislature to refrain from holding only the second lame duck session in 162 years  to consider the latest union contracts, pacts which were negotiated by Doyle since the election. In the days since it was obvious he would not prevail on that point,  several people, including Walker, have asked for the contracts to be posted online for ten days so that the public to review Doyle’s handiwork before the lame duck legislature breaks out their rubber stamp.

Given the distance between Doyle’s promises and what he actually delivers, it’s not an unreasonable request, especially when the current $150 million state budget deficit is taken into consideration.

When Governor Doyle was still Candidate Doyle eight years ago, he said to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

“The next governor is going to have the biggest opportunity, probably that anybody will ever have for the next several decades, to reduce the size of state government, (with) many people reaching retirement age over the next five to eight years. One of the great challenges for the next governor is to make sure – if I’m lucky enough to be elected and serve eight years – is that at the end of eight years, have a state work force that is significantly reduced.”

Whether it was because of political expediency or merely because he judged the task too difficult, Doyle decided to let opportunity pass him by.

Now it’s up to his successor rein in the costs of our state employees.

Walker has said that if the state employee unions do not cooperate with these efforts to lower costs, the state should consider changing the law which allows state employee unions to collectively bargain. It’s not unprecedented.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, twelve other states currently do not allow their state government employees to unionize.

By neutering  the unions, Walker and the legislature would remove the conflict of interest of negotiating with the unions while at the same time seeking the unions’ political endorsements.

We should all think of it as fiscally responsible campaign finance reform.

Far more importantly, the union concessions are needed if Wisconsin is going to get its $3.3 billion structural deficit under control. If Wisconsin’s employee unions are not willing to go along with contributing to paying for their benefits, then the state needs to change the rules.

Doyle knew this was a problem nearly a decade ago. So does Walker. However, where the old guy failed, the new guy is going to do something about it.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

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