Two-Faced Barrett or Evil Twin? Milwaukee’s Mayor on Ohio, Wis. Act 10

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Last Tuesday, voters in Ohio reversed an attempt to curb collective bargaining privileges for government employees. Unlike in Wisconsin, Ohio voters can petition to put acts of the legislature on the ballot for approval. Also unlike Wisconsin, Ohio never had a chance to implement the collective bargaining reforms to see the law in action. The Ohio law also imposed far greater concessions on public employees than Wisconsin’s new reforms. Finally, the Ohio law covered law enforcement and firefighters, allowing opponents to attack the law using public safety as an issue.

Despite those differences, opponents of the changes to collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin have claimed the Ohio experience gives momentum to the upcoming recall effort.

Getting caught up in the giddiness was city of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. In a press release on the Wednesday following the Ohio election, Barrett said, “Yesterday, Ohio citizens from every walk of life resoundingly rejected the extreme measures Governor Kasich took in eliminating the basic rights of workers. Here in Wisconsin we have seen that same extreme attack.”

He continued, “Governor Walker should do the right thing and immediately restore workers rights to organize and bargain in good faith. End this attack now and focus on creating jobs and getting Wisconsin’s economy growing.”

Readers of the press release might be forgiven for wondering if celebrated nice guy Barrett suddenly acquired an evil twin.  Barrett has not only used the changes in collective bargaining to manage the city of Milwaukee’s budget, he actually complained that the new law did not go far enough.

During the debate over the collective bargaining changes, Barrett complained that the law did not include police and firefighter unions. While protesting that he supported the ability of government employees to bargain over benefits, in a letter to legislative leaders Barrett wrote,

The Governor’s bill does not reduce the costs that middle class taxpayers in Milwaukee will pay for police and fire pension and health care benefits. The City will be forced to continue to pay the entire employee contribution for police and fire pensions, missing out on savings of approximately $14.4 million annually. This is compared to the pension savings from other unions and general city employees that will only total $8.3 million annually. In addition, all other unions and general city employees will pay 12% for their health care benefits, while the average police and fire employee will continue paying less than 4%.

More shocking, is the impact that excluding police and fire employees will have on the continuing costs of retiree health care that will primarily be paid by Milwaukee’s middle class. For non-protective service unions and general city employees, the average post retirement health care liability is $50,214. This is the amount that taxpayers now pay for each non-protective service union member and general city retiree before they become eligible for Medicare. That amount will be significantly reduced because of the 12% insurance contribution the Budget Repair Bill provides. Contrast that to the average post retirement health care liability for firefighters of $136,469 and police officers at $123,272.

Barrett described the retirement benefits for police and firefighters as “Cadillac” and added,

“Although active fire and police employees comprise only 39% of the City workforce, their retiree health care costs account for nearly two-thirds of the City’s $959.6 million unfunded post-retirement health care benefit. It’s unfortunate, but the Governor believes that these costs are a burden middle class Milwaukee taxpayers should be forced to bear.”

So on the one hand, Barrett said he could get government employee unions to make the concessions necessary to balance the city budget. On the other hand, Barrett complained that the change in the collective bargaining law did not include police and firefighters, and as a result the unions that retained their collective bargaining privileges kept “Cadillac” benefits.

It’s even more interesting that Barrett complained about the “Cadillac” benefits and the continued bargaining privileges of the police and firefighter unions when one of the major reasons the Ohio law was defeated was the inclusion of the police and firefighters. Barrett cheered for the result, even though he opposed in Wisconsin the provision that defeated the change in collective bargaining privileges in Ohio.

In fact, Barrett had previously praised Ohio for including police and firefighters in the collective bargaining changes.

“Republican Governors in Ohio and New Jersey who are facing similar budget crises have moved to increase public employee contributions for health care and pension as well,” Barret wrote previously. “However, unlike Governor Walker, those Governors have chosen not to exempt police and fire unions from the collective sacrifice that must be made to bring state and local finances under control in this economy.”

Barrett did use the changes to the collective bargaining law to his advantage in the city of Milwaukee budget process. The city of Milwaukee expects to save at least $25 million per year from the employee health benefit savings. Perhaps Barrett would like the taxpayers in the city to give back the savings so he can have a clear conscience?

Or perhaps those savings were why, when the Democratic members of the state senate stalled the state budget repair bill containing the collective bargaining changes by leaving the state, Barrett challenged the Republicans to pass the changes separately. Ironically, the Republicans followed Barrett’s advice by passing what is now known as Act 10, the law that Barrett incredulously now claims he wants to repeal.

At least, if that press release was sent by the real Tom Barrett.

But just who that is, is anyone’s guess.