Last week, President Obama said that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's budget bill is an "assault on workers." Today, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson said Obama should mind his own business.
"The president really ought to concentrate on the $1.65 trillion deficit on the national level ... rather than put his nose in Wisconsin’s business," Johnson told THE WEEKLY STANDARD this afternoon. “He needs to show the kind of leadership that Scott Walker is showing, unlike he did in his budget that’s going to add $13 trillion to our national debt over the next ten years.”
Johnson, who was just elected to his first-term in November, didn't shy away at all from the contentious debate surrounding Walker's legislation, which is vehemently opposed by public sector unions. "[Walker] needs to be supported for making the hard choices," said Johnson. "This isn’t easy. Nobody said it was going to be easy. We could use that type of strong leadership in Washington as well.”
Johnson defended the bill's provision to curtail collective bargaining rights, arguing that without that provision "local governments are going to have one of two choices: They’re either going to have to drastically increase property taxes, which I don’t think most people are going to support, most people can’t afford. Or dramatically reduce services—lay people off."
Johnson pointed out that the money public sector employees will have to put toward their health insurance and pension benefits will only save the state $300 million over two years, still leaving the state with a $3.3 billion deficit. "Part of the way you close that gap is probably with reduced revenue sharing to the cities," Johnson said. “[Walker] understands, being an ex county executive, how difficult that’s gonna be if labor agreements negotiated by the state with the labor unions are imposed on local governments. He’s trying to do is rebalance that equation, to give local governments the tools and the flexibility to be able to balance their budget.”
What does Johnson think of the legislation's exemption for police officers and firefighters? “All I can say to respond to that is [by offering] Governor Walker’s rationale for that," he replied. "What he’s stated is he didn’t want to put public safety at risk. We’re seeing what teachers are doing in terms of walking off, calling in sick when they’re not really sick. And he didn’t want to expose the public to safety issues in case the firefighters and police would do that.”
Johnson said he doesn't think that requiring teachers to pay more for their benefits will lead to fewer good teachers willing to teach. “It looks like the total cost of a teacher on average in Wisconsin is about $75,000," Johnson said. "And that’s working 9 months out of the year. If you annualize that, that’s close to $100,000. This is what teachers will do: They’ll benchmark what they can make in the private sector versus what they’re getting in the public sector. And the marketplace will take care of that.”
“With my experience in industry in terms of basic pay scales," he continued, "I don’t look at close to $100,000 on an annualized basis as being really too small an amount to attract good people.” But he emphasized that he doesn't begrudge teachers for trying to earn as much as they can.
As for the bill's provision to have public employees vote each year to maintain their union, Johnson said "that's only fair."
"The teachers should have the right, every year, to vote whether they want to be represented that particular union," he said. "I don't see why the union should expect the government to collect their dues for them. There are plenty of teachers who don’t agree with the political views or political contributions made by the union. They shouldn’t have dues taken out to support political parties they don’t necessarily agree with.”
Johnson said that the debate in Wisconsin is framing the broader national debate about spending. “This is establishing the fault line in terms of fiscal discipline or kind of throwing up your hands up and saying we can’t fix these problems,” he said. “We need to convey at a state-level, what we need to a convey at a federal level: we have spent beyond our means, we have got to be serious in correcting that. Governor Walker is faced with a $3.6 billion deficit. We’re faced with a $1.6 trillion deficit on the national level. We need real leadership.”