Globe Editorial

By overreaching, Wis. governor hinders reforms in all states

Demonstrators fill the rotunda of the state capitol yesterday in Madison, Wis. Demonstrators fill the rotunda of the state capitol yesterday in Madison, Wis. (Getty Images)
February 25, 2011

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MANY STATES, including Massachusetts, need to take a fuller account of the promises they’ve made to public-employee unions. Even as legislatures scrape for revenue amid a weak economy, the costs of long-established pension and health care benefits continue to grow. But new legislation proposed in Wisconsin by Republican Governor Scott Walker looks less like a serious effort to manage the cost of government than like a political vendetta against a traditional Democratic interest group.

Worse yet, his uncompromising approach is likely to hinder a more thoughtful discussion of public-employee contracts — not just in Wisconsin, but in statehouses from coast to coast.

In terms of hard numbers, Walker’s controversial “budget repair’’ bill looks somewhat mild: Public employees in Wisconsin, who now pay little of their health care and none of their pension costs, would have to contribute more. Yet they’d still be paying a lower percentage than most current Massachusetts state employees do.

But gaining specific concessions, it appears, isn’t the point of the bill. Far more striking are provisions to curtail the collective-bargaining power of most public-employee unions. One measure in particular, a requirement for annual votes to recertify a union, seems calculated to tie labor leaders up in knots, rather than to protect workers or the greater good.

Walker is hardly unique in arguing that his state cannot afford existing public-employee contracts. Though its origin lay in the financial sector, the recession has indeed highlighted the need for more efficiency in state governments from Massachusetts to California. Health costs alone are a major reason for concern: No government agency anywhere can absorb stiff, year-over-year increases in health premiums while continuing to provide the level of services that the public needs, and in Massachusetts, at least, municipal employee unions have steadfastly opposed efforts to grant governments more flexibility.

Yet Walker’s bill reflects more political calculation than budgetary principle. Even as he’s sounded the alarm about state finances, he’s approved tax cuts that make the math more daunting. He’s exempted public-safety unions from his budget-repair bill — either because they’re popular with the public or because he counts some among his supporters. Yet if unreasonable demands by state employees are the problem, as Walker implies, he should know that fire and police unions are just as capable as any other unions of making them. Meanwhile, when other unions expressed a willingness to accept the pension and health care concessions he sought, he declined to make a deal.

The battle in Madison has put Walker’s critics in a bad light, too. Some Democratic legislators have fled the state rather than allow the budget-repair bill to come to a vote — an unseemly gesture, and most likely a futile one. They can’t hold out forever.

As the controversy has reverberated around the country, Democrats have closed ranks with organized labor. In Massachusetts, US Representative Michael Capuano, a liberal firebrand, rashly urged labor supporters to “get a little bloody.’’ (He later backed off that comment.) Governor Patrick, who’s had his own run-ins with public unions, turned up at a local rally in support of Wisconsin public employees.

This digging-in of heels on all sides may be good news for Republican strategists who want to make public unions a political liability for Democrats. But this polarization is a disaster for states, whose well-being demands that any unsustainable benefits for public workers be scaled back. Moderate Democratic leaders, who empathize with government workers’ desire for a middle-class living yet understand the dire condition of many states’ finances, have a crucial role in bringing about shared sacrifice. This is harder to achieve when Walker has convinced public workers that they’re only being scapegoated for Wall Street’s sins.

Walker’s bill may serve his own political goals, but it’s an obstacle to progress everywhere else.