What Happened in Vegas? On, Wisconsin!

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day
    – Henry V, Act 4 Scene 3

Viva Las Vegas and On, Wisconsin!

At the RightOnline conference in Las Vegas sponsored by Americans for Prosperity this past weekend, if you said you were from Wisconsin the rest of the attendees smiled and congratulated you for winning the Recall Election. It was Aaron Rodriguez, who writes the Hispanic Conservative blog, who commented that we were talked to like heroes. It seemed like everybody at the conference wished they were from Wisconsin.

To say that conservative bloggers and activists from across the United States were excited about the Recall Election results would be the understatement of the century.

What was also interesting was the number of speakers at RightOnline that had their “Wisconsin story” to tell. From Sarah Palin to Michelle Malkin to AFP’s Tim Phillips, speaker after speaker at the conference spoke about the victory with their take on how the state was transformed.

At an afternoon seminar on Saturday, Brian Fraley of the MacIver Institute, and David Fladeboe and Luke Hilgemann of Americans for Prosperity – Wisconsin, were given the opportunity to tell the story of the public policy that spurred the uproar. They told the real story of Act 10: what it was, what necessitated the policy change, and how it was working.

Conference attendees learned about the joint effort of Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy to educate the public about the real impact of the collective bargaining changes. They focused on the policy and not the politics, which informed and changed public opinion in Wisconsin.

Fladeboe explained to the audience what Act 10 was and how it passed. He explained the state constitutional requirement that Wisconsin have a balance budget and the dire situation Gov. Walker inherited.

He explained how Act 10 would not only resolve 2011’s short term budget mess, but would help stabilize state finances for generations to come.

“State employees were paying zero toward their pension… yet received a defined payout, and that needed to be changed.”

On health care, Fladeboe explained how the newly required contribution toward premiums still was modest compared to the private sector, noting Act 10 was “Not a huge ask of the state employees, public employees.”

The panelists also explained how the Walker Administration realized that the only way the changes could be made in time to balance the budget was to limit collective bargaining. They also provided anecdotes, familiar to many of us in Wisconsin, of how collective bargaining had hidden expenses beyond just pay and benefits and how ACT 10 would result in eliminating their burden on future budgets as well.

As an example, Fraley explained to the audience the abusive practice of “sick leave stacking.” Sick leave stacking allowed a public employee in the department of corrections to take sick leave, and then come in after the scheduled shift to fill in for someone else (Overtime was offered on the basis of seniority). They were paid their sick leave pay for the time they missed and then overtime for filling in for someone else. The elimination of this practice is already saving millions of tax dollars, Fraley noted.

Fraley also explained that early on in 2011 the MacIver Institute showed that it wasn’t just the sweet little school librarians doing the protesting and agitating in Madison. “What we did at MacIver, we showed Wisconsin and the world that it was wasn’t kindergarten teachers that were sleeping on the floor of the Capitol and trespassing for three weeks.” Rather, he said, it was idle students, the homeless, leftist radicals, anarchists, former hippies, would-be hippies and outside agitators from groups affiliated with Big Labor who provided the front lines in the infamous Wisconsin Capitol Occupation of 2011.

MacIver had evidence of the need to reform the bargaining process and had long chronicled the abuses Big Labor was subjecting upon the taxpayers. Yet, Fraley told the audience that the analysis of Act10 was getting lost in the passion and heat (and smell?) of the protests. The occupation of the Capitol had an emotional impact and provided startling images, and policy analysis is just too difficult for most in the traditional media to comprehend.  

Public opinion was against the policy changes, in part because they were so sudden and because the public was not informed about what those changes were and how those changes would impact their lives.

“Politicians and legislative majorities come and go,” said Fraley. “The story of what happened in Wisconsin was and is about an impressive move toward fiscal responsibility that needed further explanation and must continue to be told.”

What was needed in the fall of 2011 was an educational campaign on the merits of Act 10. Like many good political ideas, that effort began on the back of a napkin. Americans for Prosperity and the MacIver Institute would go on to launch an educational effort to show what the reforms really meant for Wisconsin and change the terms of the debate.

Hilgemann said, “Because we knew some of the results were starting to come in. We were hearing some of these things trickling in from the news. Again, all the turmoil in the Capitol, all the stuff that was going on, people were scared. Our lawmakers were paralyzed.”

A Capitol staffer at the time of the occupation, Hilgemann said the fear was justified, in many ways because the environment in Madison was so hostile. So angry.

“They (the lawmakers) were afraid the death threats were going to come true,” he said.

The panel then described the It’s Working Wisconsin effort.

“It was an educational effort based on policy,” Hilgemann said. “We never mentioned the governor in anything we did, because it was like what Brian said, this transcends politics. It’s more important. The cause is more important than any campaign.”

Hilgemann explained they created a website, ItsWorkingWisconsin.com. They created paid television ads to promote the site and, “We sent our ground troops out with the facts to educate their neighbors, to educate their friends, on what the budget reforms really meant for Wisconsin.”

Americans for Prosperity has more than 116,000 voluntary members in Wisconsin.

He explained that the debate was changed not through the mainstream media, who were sympathetic to the protestors, but through alternative means: blogs, Twitter, educational videos, and broadcast commercials.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation and MacIver took the educational program out on the road for town hall meetings in Wisconsin. In Waukesha, Kimberly, Wausau, Eau Claire and Milwaukee they showed a nine-minute video to audiences that explained how the state budget was in a $3.6 billion deficit. The video explained where state money was being spent and where the cuts needed to be made.

Since the cost of public employees is the biggest portion of state and local spending, that’s where the cuts needed to be made.

However, local governments and state government were limited in the changes they could make because of collective bargaining. Worse, public employee unions would work to elect union-friendly representatives on local governments, allowing them control of bargaining on both sides of the table. Those successes by unions would be used to pressure the other local units of government to make equivalent agreements. Act 10 has changed all that.

AFP and the MacIver Institute showed how the budget reforms worked. “We drove the debate,” Hilgemann said.

He noted that at each town hall they held, by a show of hands more than half otf the town hall attendees said they had never attended a meeting like it, nor had they been to a legislative town hall political rally or tea party. Some skeptical, some supportive, the It’s Working Wisconsin town hall attendees helped foster a serious discussion of the issue, which continued long after the events ended.

He noted how support for the policy has increased dramatically as the result of a populace that is now educated on the issue.

“This was a public policy campaign that is still going on,” Fraley said. “The It’s Working Wisconsin effort was unprecedented in the state of Wisconsin.”

In his closing remarks, Fraley thanked the Wisconsin bloggers for helping to spread the message and adding to the debate. He then emphasized that the true transformation in Wisconsin is not about elections or politics. Fraley said while conservatives across the country are now enamored with a certain midwestern rock star Governor, the most exciting development in Wisconsin in the last two years is the shift toward fiscal responsibility.

During the question and answer period that followed the presentation, Fraley added, “If this can happen in Wisconsin, where the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees was founded a mile or so from my office…if this can happen in Wisconsin, this could be replicated everywhere. Everywhere. From the most blue state to the most red. If you tell the truth in a way that people understand it, if you relentlessly adhere to the facts and you cut through the emotion, and persevere and have the resources to do it, this can happen anywhere.”

The lesson from my brief trip to Vegas: Let’s hope what happens in Madison doesn’t stay in Madison.