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Scott Walker vs. Public Sector Unions

1:45 PM, Feb 17, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker looked out the window of his office at the Capitol in Madison Wednesday he saw more than 10,000 people gathered to protest his decision to require public employees to contribute more to their pensions and health care. Walker says he’s not surprised that the proposed changes have generated such a ferocious response. “You’re messing with the way people make their living,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD. “It’s understandable they’ll be upset.”

Scott Walker vs. Public Sector Unions

But Walker is unapologetic. These are difficult times. Wisconsin is facing a budget crisis. And there have to be cuts. Walker believes the changes he’s proposing are relatively modest. “I’m asking them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pension – right about the national average for contributions. And I’m asking them to pay 12 percent of their health care premiums – up from 6 percent. The national average is around 25 percent."

So Wisconsin’s public employees will still have benefit plans more generous than most workers across the country. And these steps are being taken with the express purpose of avoiding major layoffs and dramatic paycuts. But the unions don't like it.

Walker's reforms are unacceptable to protestors, many of whom are teachers participating in a “sickout” so that they can attend rallies against Walker’s proposals. And that’s ironic. According to the state of Wisconsin, the average teacher salary in Wisconsin is $49,093 annually. (With benefits, the average total compensation is  $77,857.) With 190 school days per year, Wisconsin public education employees make about $258 per day.  So in an effort to avoid contributing to their own pensions and funding 6 percent more of their own health care premiums, teachers have taken unpaid leave to protest and have given up nearly $500 – so far. (They could recoup the money if their districts add school days at the end of the year.) What’s more, Wisconsin teachers pay as much as $1100 each year in compulsory union dues. If the legislation passes, they will no longer be required to pay thosee dues – returning that money to their own pockets.

Reaction to Walker’s proposal has been fierce. A Washington Post columnist suggested Walker was like deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. State Senator Lena Taylor likened Walker to Adolf Hitler.  Barack Obama accused the Wisconsin governor of an “assault on unions.” And beyond the thousands of protestors in Madison, several hundred protestors even showed up at Walker’s personal home in Wauwatosa to register their displeasure with his leadership (and, perhaps, intimidate his family). Teachers from Madison East High School took students out of class and brought them to the rally on Wednesday. ("Our teachers brought us here today," said one student. Asked what they were protesting, she said: "I don't know." Another student said: "We're trying to stop whatever this dude is doing.")

But he’s getting lots of support, too. New Jersey governor Chris Christie texted Walker words of encouragement on Tuesday night. And Walker says that Ohio Governor John Kasich phoned to say that the two were “sharing a brain” on getting serious about state budgets.

And while many public employees have turned out to protest the proposal, others support what the governor is trying to accomplish. “For years people made promises about these great benefits knowing that they’d never have to answer for it,” says one long-term substitute teacher in a school district near Madison. “Someone has to clean this up. I think he’s just trying to balance the budget and the money has got to come from somewhere. There’s no magic money pot.”

Walker clashed with the Obama administration before he even took office when he turned down some $800 million in federal stimulus funds designated for a high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison. He was elected in November with more than 52 percent of the vote after campaigning against high-speed rail and on his plan to rein in state spending.

Walker, who had served in the state legislature, was elected as Milwaukee County Executive in the spring of 2002 in the aftermath of a pension scandal that had voters in the mood for reform. He promised to cut spending and overhaul county government. Walker delivered and was reelected in 2008. Eight months before Barack Obama beat John McCain in Milwaukee County with 67.5 percent of the vote, Walker won 59 percent.

Walker says he’s sympathetic to the concerns of hard-working public employees, but says he also has to look out for Wisconsin taxpayers. What’s more, he says, he is simply doing what he was elected to do. “I campaigned on this,” he says. “These are the promises I made. I’m keeping them.”

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