Taxpayers 4, public employee unions 3

I was away from this laptop much of Wednesday, so I didn’t get a chance to read all of the reaction to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision (which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commemorated in end-of-the-world-font-size) reinstituting the substantial weakening of public employee bargaining rights.

(The Supreme Court’s 4–3 decision, by the way, has exactly as much legal weight as a 5–2, 6–1 or 7–0 decision, the latter of which shows the margin of Supreme Court justices who concluded that Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi overstepped her legal authority in overturning the law. Interesting, isn’t it, that the words “divisive” and “controversial” only describe initiatives the user of those words dislikes.)

What was touted at the time as a move necessitated by the $136 million budget deficit that existed at the time (the most recent example of the flood of red ink in which Wisconsin is drowning) was actually necessitated by the imbalance of the relationship between public employees and the taxpayers who pay public employees’ salaries.

Ever since the state’s mediation–arbitration law was enacted in the late 1970s after the Madison teacher strike, taxpayers have not been represented in collective bargaining between public employee unions and the state, county, municipality or school district from which they receive their paychecks. (Taxpayers, of course, pay their salaries.) Public employees have gotten pay raises in years in which taxpayers largely did not, and public employees have consistently received better benefits than their employers the taxpayers. Outsize spending on salaries and benefits lead to excessive government spending, which leads to high taxes (fourth highest state and local taxes in the U.S., as you know) and enormous levels of state and local government debt.

Gov. Scott Walker, who showed unusual fortitude for proposing to reorder the balance between public employee and taxpayer, has been branded public enemy number one. To that, said WTMJ radio’s Charlie Sykes, “Do you know who was Public Enemy #1 for the last 20 years? The TAXPAYER!”

To say that those who believe public employee unions should run Wisconsin — I mean, opponents of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill — are not happy is like saying water is wet. Some responses have been printable; others have not.

I’ll repeat what I have written elsewhere: Public employees, because they are paid by the taxpayers, do not deserve collective bargaining rights of any kind on any workplace issue. Period. The relationship between a private company and its union is between them and is no one else’s business. (Except the company’s customers, which can vote with their wallets whether or not they like unions.) The relationship between government as employer and government employees is the business of the taxpayers, whose (excessively high in Wisconsin) taxes are paying government employee salaries. (You can guess whose side I’m on in the teeter-totter between the 15 percent of workers who work for some Wisconsin government and the 85 percent of workers who do not work for government but whose taxes pay for the salaries and benefits of the aforementioned 15 percent.)

In the same way that teachers and teacher unions are not the same thing, public employees and public employee unions are not the same thing either. Employees of an organization deserve to have their work evaluated and rewarded individually, because each employee’s performance in and contribution to the organization is different. Public employee unions serve only to protect themselves and their most underachieving members, at the expense of high-achieving union members and, most importantly, the taxpayers. So if you conclude that the weakening of public employee collective bargaining approved by the Supreme Court does not go far enough, you are a perceptive reader. But, to quote Otto von Bismarck (the author of the famed comparison of laws and sausages), politics is the art of the possible.

One predictable result is that Da Union has filed suit in U.S. District Court in the People’s Republic of Madison seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it’s discriminatory because it doesn’t apply to police and fire unions. (The law should apply to all, but there is a legislative solution for that, not a judicial solution.) You need not have attended law school to see that the lawsuit is obviously a fishing expedition to get U.S. District Judge William Coffey (conveniently, a Barack Obama appointee) to rule that public-employee collective bargaining is a constitutional right, when it is not. And even if Coffey lets his inner Democrat prevail, given the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, though I am not a lawyer, overturning the law seems unlikely to pass Supreme muster.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also isn’t happy:

In a rash decision based on flimsy reasoning, four justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have upended the state open meetings law and opened the door for political mischief. …

The court found that the Legislature must obey the state constitution but not the open meetings law even though the constitution requires the doors of the body to remain open when it is in session and even though the constitution is mentioned in the law. Under the law, meetings typically require 24 hours notice.

With four short words – “access was not denied” – the majority weakened Wisconsin’s reputation for open government. …

The court’s slapdash ruling has injured its own reputation for thoughtfulness and fair play – perhaps for a very long time. The court should revisit this issue.

The news media is obligated to fight for open government, of course. It is interesting, though, how often advocates claim that the U.S. Supreme Court or a state Supreme Court is the law of the land when they agree with the decision (for instance, Roe v. Wade or, for the media, New York Times v. Sullivan), and then seek to delegitimize a decision they don’t like. Editorial writers are journalists, not lawyers and not usually constitutional scholars.

One news report suggested a constitutional amendment would be introduced to make the state Open Meetings Law apply to the Legislature too. (The irony is that the Open Meetings and Open Records laws were passed after the Legislature in 1975 created the state budget almost entirely in secret. Both houses of the Legislature were controlled by Democrats.) Such an effort should be made, because the Legislature should be subject to the same laws as everyone else in the state. (Assembly and Senate Democratic and Republican caucus meetings are not subject to the law either.) Perhaps if that were the case, the Legislature would create better laws than the laws the previous Legislature passed, about which voters expressed their opinion Nov. 2.

The second predictable result is a predicted wave of government employee retirements to prevent having to do what taxpayers have had to do for several years — pay more for their benefits. As I wrote yesterday, you have the right to retire if you have the wherewithal to retire, even if few of the people whose taxes paid for those benefits will be retiring after just 30 years in the workforce. As I also wrote yesterday, those who take the early-retirement out when they could still be serving the public forfeit their self-description as selfless public servants.

There are two other benefits for the state from a wave of public employee retirements. In a state with an estimated 228,000 unemployed workers (as of May according to the state Department of Workforce Development), every retirement is a job opportunity for someone else. Or: Every retirement is an opportunity to reduce the public sector workforce (about 280,000, of which 70,000 are state employees, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance) without layoffs.

2 thoughts on “Taxpayers 4, public employee unions 3

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