Barrett Boxed in by Budget Bluster, Bargaining Bravado?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett did not even wait for his probable re-election as mayor to enter the recall election on the Democratic side. Depending on the outcome of the Democratic Primary, Barrett’s run could set up a rematch of the 2010 November general election, a “do-over” made possible by Democratic opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s budget reforms.


As Milwaukee’s mayor, Barrett was more than a bystander in last year’s state budget battle. Barrett’s city budget was directly impacted by the reforms enacted by the legislature, and Barrett had plenty to say as it happened.

A little over a year ago, the state was in turmoil as the entire caucus of Democratic State Senators fled the state rather than vote on Walker’s budget repair bill. On Midday with Charlie Sykes, Barrett suggested a way out of the impasse. If the Republicans removed all the fiscal items from the budget repair bill, the Democrats would not be needed for a quorum.

“I honestly think there’s a pretty clear path on how we work our way out of this. And that is… And you talked about the fourteen senators. The fact of the matter is, Senate rules are that you need 20 senators to deal with a fiscal item. They are not there for that. But the collective bargaining changes are not fiscal. I think the proponents are trying to argue that they are, but the Fiscal Bureau and others have said they are not fiscal. And you could vote on those without those missing senators.”

Republicans did eventually follow Barrett’s advice and pass the collective bargaining changes without the Democrats.

As a result of the changes brought by Act 10, the city of Milwaukee was able to save $19 million in health care costs. This is because the city no longer had to collectively bargain over benefits issues.

If Act 10 had not passed, the city was facing an $8 million increase in health care costs. The net savings to the city budget of the Act 10 budget reform, subtracting the cuts in local aid, was $11 million for 2012.

This is in spite of the opinion by City Attorney Grant Langley that the city could not take advantage of the additional savings that could be achieved from greater pension contributions by city employees. Had the city taken advantage of those changes, Milwaukee taxpayers could have saved an additional $8.3 million.

One area where the legislature did not listen to Barrett was the inclusion of police and firefighters in the changes to collective bargaining. Barrett was disappointed that Wisconsin did not include police and firefighters in the collective bargaining changes. In a letter sent by Barrett to legislative leaders prior to Act 10’s passage,

“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 to the unrealized pension savings, changes to police and fire health benefits could have resulted in $3.2 million more in savings.

Perhaps that’s why Barrett chastised Walker and the legislature, reminding them that New Jersey and Ohio included police and fire 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,” Barrett wrote. “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.”

So by all accounting, budgeting for the city of Milwaukee was made easier by the passage of Act 10. By Barrett’s own accounting, Act 10 could have gone even further than it did to reduce costs for local units of government.

It could be why Barrett did not, as Falk did, unequivocally promise to restore collective bargaining for benefits to public employee unions.

Wigderson is an award-winning columnist from Waukesha.