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The marketplace of government-reform ideas

Two weeks ago, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote two interesting, yet contradictory in a sense, pieces about what’s happened in Madison since Gov. Scott Walker took office.

The first story looks at the national impact of Walker’s effort to defang public employee unions’ ability to extort taxpayer dollars — I mean, curtail public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights. (Which the Supreme Court did Tuesday.) The Journal Sentinel’s reporting is potentially worthy of Pulitzer Prize consideration, and I predict someone some day will write a book about this, which will have copies in every public library in the state and approximately 112 readers nationwide:

Within days, Madison became the epicenter of protest, with demonstrators flooding the Capitol and filling the Square, thrusting a statewide story onto the national stage. …

But some recalcitrant GOP senators, including [Senate President Michael] Ellis, would soon find themselves pressured from the right by TV ads financed by the state arm of Club for Growth, a national conservative group that joined efforts to push Walker’s bill. …

Protest crowds built dramatically, as did national attention and the media interest.  …

“We had a revolution to plan,” said Rich Abelson, head of AFSCME District Council 48, the Milwaukee-based public employee union. His union and others had long sparred with Walker. Emails showed that on the day of the Democrats’ departure, national union officials were offering talking points to Democrats to explain their absence. …

Labor leaders, state and national, as well as Democratic Party officials, stayed in close touch with the senators even as they worked to keep the protests going — and growing.

Ellis’ role is interesting:

In early February, Walker met with Senate President Mike Ellis, an independent and cantankerous Republican, fiscal hawk and son of a paper mill worker-union leader from Neenah.

Ellis wasn’t shy. He implored Walker to drop the collective-bargaining piece of the bill before it went public and undermined Walker’s early legislative successes.

At that point, according to Ellis, the plan on the table would have ended all collective bargaining except for firefighters, police and troopers — a broader plan than Walker ultimately introduced.

“My God, this is going to cause a firestorm,” Ellis told Walker. …

Ellis caught wind of what was happening when he spoke with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R–Juneau), who already had been talking with the administration.

“Fitzgerald came in to tell me and said, ‘You better sit down, you’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you,'” Ellis said.

“‘He’s going to do away with all unions,'” Ellis quoted Fitzgerald saying.

Ellis’ prediction was surely correct, even if obvious. Fitzgerald’s was not, because the government cannot “do away with all unions,” whether Fitzgerald was referring to “all unions” or public-employee unions. (Unfortunately in the latter case.) Whether a private company’s employees choose to unionize is up to that company and its employees and no one else. That company’s customers do have the right to vote with their business over whether they support union businesses or not. There is no such choice for taxpayers with governments and their unionized employees, which is why taxpayers should have the final say in collective bargaining rights, or the lack thereof, of the employees whose salaries they pay with their taxes.

The other story takes a curiously nativist tone over the source of Walker’s reform proposals:

Did Walker develop the idea himself, after years of clashing with organized labor as Milwaukee County executive? Or did he get help from conservative think tanks or advocacy groups?

Union leaders, Democrats and liberals see a conspiracy in which right-wing groups saw an opening and pushed the changes here and elsewhere across the country.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R–Juneau) said [in late May] that it was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels who may have provided the template for Walker’s proposal. On his second day in office in 2005, Daniels rescinded collective bargaining for state workers. …

In Wisconsin, bill drafters at the Legislative Reference Bureau said the detailed instructions on the final version of the bill came from Walker’s Department of Administration. A chain of emails backs that up. There is no indication in the extensive file of any influence or input from outside groups. …

Many union leaders point to David and Charles Koch, billionaire brothers well known for their support of conservative causes. Koch Industries, which has extensive operations in Wisconsin, contributed to Walker’s campaign through its political action committee.Others cite the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The conservative group drafts model legislation on myriad issues and offers it to members for use in state legislatures around the country. The group has received financial support from Koch Industries.

That would be Koch Industries, the employer of more than 2,500 Wisconsinites, by the way. In other states, private-sector empl0yment is a good thing — preferable to government employment, in fact, given that the economic impact of government jobs is blunted by the cost of those government jobs. In Wisconsin, not so much, according to the protesters in Madison.

Another ingredient in the conspiracy theory recipe is the American Legislative Exchange Council:

ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber said the group does not have anti-collective bargaining legislation among its portfolio of legislation.

“ALEC has model legislation that simply states that employees have a choice to join, or refrain from joining, a union,” she said, adding neither Walker nor any lawmakers consulted with the group on the measure here.

However, in a January interview with The New York Times – before Walker’s proposal was unveiled – Michael Hough, director of ALEC’s commerce task force, said the group was spreading collective-bargaining proposals from state to state.

Wisconsin political geeks like to see Wisconsin as a political leader among the states. Inevitably this so-called leadership is either nonideological (direct election of U.S. senators and primary elections) or “progressive,” including income taxes and aforementioned public-employee collective bargaining rights. (The latter was signed into law by Gov. Gaylord Nelson, who as a U.S. senator founded Earth Day on the same day as Vladimir Lenin’s birthday.) Wisconsin’s Progressive movement was started as a response to stick it to evil railroad executives, and state politics has pretty much followed the screw-the-productive-class little red book for more than 100 years. One result is that this state has some of the worst finances of any state in the U.S.

Good ideas and bad ideas observe no borders. Other states’ government and politics have followed the novel concept that the function of government is to perform government services, not to employ people, redistribute wealth, or effect and promote trendy social change. The state Constitution includes the advice that “The blessings of a free government can only be maintained by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” — advice that was ignored within 50 years of its writing.

Most states have some sort of spending or taxation limits. Neither the writers of the Wisconsin Constitution nor any Legislature since statehood saw fit to enact such taxpayer-protection measures. As a result, despite $2 billion in tax increases and the fourth highest state and local taxes in the U.S., Wisconsin is near the top of the states in GAAP deficits, consecutive fiscal years of GAAP deficits, and state and local government debt, in addition to being in the bottom half of states in bond ratings.

The time to return those aforementioned fundamental principles, which are not exclusive to Wisconsin, is now. The previous Legislature’s and governor’s ignorance of “frugality and virtue” led us to enough red ink to drown the entire state. For the most part (though not entirely), the current Legislature and governor are working to drain the red-ink swamp and prevent the next red-ink flood.