C.J. Szafir and Collin Roth:
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” the dog that didn’t bark reveals the greater truth. The same might be said of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’s first state budget proposal. Derided by critics as a “liberal wish list,” Mr. Evers’s budget proposes to expand Medicaid, freeze school choice, overturn right to work, fund Planned Parenthood, add more than 700 government jobs, increase spending by $7 billion, and raise taxes by more than $1 billion.
But the budget dog that didn’t bark is the bigger story. Mr. Evers’s budget leaves alone former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 collective-bargaining reforms, known as Act 10, revealing that strong fiscal reforms can create a legacy that is practically impossible to unwind even when the political pendulum inevitably swings back.
Mr. Walker and a Republican-controlled Legislature passed Act 10 to solve a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall. The law, among other things, significantly limited public employee unions’ ability to bargain collectively and required public employees to pay more for their benefits—5.8% of pension contributions and 12.6% of health-care premiums.
This spurred political warfare in the Badger State. Nearly 100,000 activists descended on the State Capitol. Republican lawmakers received death threats. Democrats and labor unions that tried and failed to remove Mr. Walker in a 2012 recall election have pledged to overturn Act 10.
On the campaign trail last year, Mr. Evers enthusiastically promised to repeal it: “I fought against it as state superintendent. I spoke at the Capitol. I’ve seen the either unintended or intended consequences of it. I think collective bargaining is a right, and people should be able to do that.”
Yet as governor, Mr. Evers has been silent on repealing Act 10. No speeches. No executive orders or regulations. No bill requests. And not even a partial repeal of Act 10 in a state budget proposal packed with progressive priorities.
The reason is simple. Act 10 has become an integral part of how government operates in Wisconsin, from the statehouse in Madison down to local school districts. Rolling it back would cripple government finances and lead to higher taxes or curtailed government services.
When public employees were required to contribute more to their pensions and health care, every level of government in Wisconsin experienced enormous savings; the conservative MacIver Institute estimates more than $5 billion statewide, $3 billion of which has been realized by local school districts. The city of Milwaukee under two-time Scott Walker opponent Mayor Tom Barrett saved $20 million.
Savings from Act 10 bent the cost curve for public-employee benefits, keeping Wisconsin safe from Illinois-style fiscal disaster. “Act 10 has become so ingrained in operational savings that it would probably cost more than it has actually saved over the last eight years to try and repeal it,” said Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow, a former state assemblyman who voted for the reforms in 2011.
Without mandated collective bargaining with unions, local governments now have the freedom to make decisions on employee benefits that occur in the private economy every day. School districts can shop around for the best health-insurance plans rather than being forced to purchase union-supported plans. In the first year after Act 10’s passage, the Elmbrook School District saved $2.6 million on health-care costs alone through changes to their health plan and increased employee contributions.
Many school superintendents won’t admit it publicly, but weakened teachers unions have given them unprecedented freedom to make important decisions about the schools they oversee. The ability to offer better pay and incentives has school districts across the state competing for the best teachers.
“Act 10 changed the way we as school administrators do business,” says John Humphries, school superintendent in rural Thorp and a 2017 candidate for state superintendent. “The relationship between management and teachers is much easier. We as administrators have to do things to retain teachers because of the new marketplace.”
This new market for teaching talent has had a significant positive effect on student outcomes. A 2018 report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty concluded that Act 10 led to higher math test scores in the state. A 2016 study found no difference between Wisconsin’s student-teacher ratios and gross teacher salaries and those in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, which, at the time, had not enacted similar reforms.
The Evers administration didn’t respond to our requests for comment. But it’s likely that what candidate Tony Evers did not understand, Gov. Tony Evers now does. The fiscal and collective-bargaining reforms of Act 10 ushered in an era of political tumult in Wisconsin, but they also unlocked savings and unleashed government innovation. This makes even proposing going back to the pre-Act 10 days unrealistic.
Act 10 is a reminder that good policy transcends partisan politics. Reform-minded governors and Washington politicians should take note.
Which is not surprising. The chances of Evers’ getting Act 10 changes through the Legislature are presently zero, and will remain zero as long as Republicans control one house of the Legislature. Act 10 changes will be opposed by superintendents, school boards and taxpayers.