Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mea Culpa, Sort Of

On February 18, I approvingly quoted an editorial in a Madison, Wisconsin publication in which it was maintained

To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes -- or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues -- the “crisis” would not exist.

This charge, made most visibly by Rachel Maddow, appears largely to have been debunked, in part by Politifact. Besides Maddow, Madison's Cap Times, and Ed Schultz, a few others made the same claim. Most important among them was The Washington Post's generally reliable ("generally" reliable- is that an oxymoron?) Ezra Klein, who in an update explained

I've been persuaded that the surplus-to-deficit picture is more complicated that I initially understood. The budget report is working with two time periods simultaneously: 2010-2011, and then 2011-13. The $130 million deficit now projected for 2011 isn't the fault of the tax breaks passed during Walker's special session, though his special session created about $120 million in deficit spending between 2011 and 2013 -- and perhaps more than that, if his policies are extended. That is to say, the deficit spending he created in his special session is about equal to the deficit Wisconsin faces this year, but it's not technically correct to say that Walker created 2011's deficit. Rather, he added $120 million to the 2011-2013 deficits, and perhaps more in the years after that.

It had proven especially tempting to blame the $137 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year new spending which, at $140 million, was nearly identical. This was especially so because, as the editorial quoted above indicated, it was comprised of $25 million "for an economic development fund for job creation that still has $73 million due to a lack of job creation;" $48 million for private health savings accounts, which benefit the wealthy and insurance companies; and $67 million for a "tax shift plan" which will aid businesses. Nonetheless, the tax breaks will add to the deficit for the following two fiscal years, not the upcoming one, and therefore are not responsible for the budget deficit immediately facing the State of Wisconsin.

This is, however, not to suggest that the argument of such persons as Maddow, Schultz, and myself that the crisis created by Wisconsin governor Walker primarily is prompted by a budget crisis is inaccurate. It is not. One provision of the "budget repair bill," restructuring the state's debt, reportedly would bring in $260 million, which would obliterate the budget gap. Moreover, Scott Walker compiled a record of anti-union animus as Milwaukee County Executive. According to the AFL-CIO

•In October 2010, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) found that Milwaukee County, under then-County Executive Walker, failed to bargain in good faith with AFSCME District Council 48. Walker’s own bargaining team reached a tentative agreement with county workers in late 2009, but within days he announced a budget that ignored the agreement and assumed major concessions that had not been negotiated. At that point, he threatened major layoffs unless unions accepted the un-negotiated concessions. Walker’s team had not discussed the budget’s impact with the union.

•Walker’s unilateral decision to replace Milwaukee County Courthouse security staff with private contractors also was overruled by a WERC arbitrator on Jan. 10. The arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate county security staff with back pay, a decision that could cost the county $430,000.

•In December 2010, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld an arbitrator’s decision that Walker overstepped his powers by trying to impose a 35-hour workweek on Milwaukee County workers. Walker cited a budget crisis as the need for chopping five hours off the workweek without talking to the union. The arbitrator and court did not agree.

•In 2006, the union sought and won a temporary restraining order to stop layoffs threatened by Walker in an attempt to force concessions.

In the current standoff, the unions have accepted the concessions the Governor's budget repair bill (details here) includes. He has, however, rejected the offer, instead demanding that labor also acquiesce to severe restrictions on its ability to bargain collectively, as well as limitations on collection of union dues. Both sides recognize that such provisions probably would result in the end of unions for public employees (except for police and fire, state police troopers and inspectors) in the State of Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Walker maintains that states such as his have a long-term, as wellas an immediate, budgetary problem. Wednesday, he complained (transcript here) to GOP TV's Greta van Susteren

The reason we face a $3.6 billion budget deficit is because previous governors, previous legislatures, have used short-term fixes, one-time fixes to push us to the problem we have today. For me, we've got to make a commitment to the future and ensure that my kids and kids all across the state aren't saddled with this burden for years down the road. The only way to do it is in what we're proposing in this "budget repair" bill.

This was a day after the Governor signed a bill which would require a two-thirds vote- a "supermajority" before taxes are raised (unless approved by referendum). The measure, which would affect income, sales, and franchise taxes, was, you might recall, enacted in the midst of a budget crisis which, Walker would have us believe, is of an enduring nature. Short of funds? The state GOP's answer to a crisis in which revenues are insufficient is to restrict the ability of state officials serving in the future to raise those revenues. Presumably, any tax hikes would be unnecessary once the unions are dissolved and government employees work for little more than minimum wage.

Rachel Maddow and the others, who got the details of the current budget wrong, at least understood that Governor Walker is motivated far less by rising costs than by power and politics. As Mother Jones' Andy Kroll explains, the second largest donor, at $43,000, to Scott Walker's political campaign was the (Charles and David) Koch Industries PAC, immersed in funding pro-corporate causes. That was in addition to the $1 million it gave to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker and $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking his Democratic opponent. No wonder the Governor would take a phone call from someone he assumed, without confirmation, was David Koch. Wouldn't you have?

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