Wisconsin’s growing war over public-employee benefits is becoming a major battleground between President Barack Obama and grass-roots conservatives who say the time has come to restore sanity to state, local and federal budgets. As the drama unfolds in America's heartland, other states are paying close attention and may follow Wisconsin's example in an effort to restore fiscal discipline.
“We’re not going to allow for one minute the protesters to feel that they can drown out the voices of those millions of taxpayers all across the state of Wisconsin,” Gov. Scott Walker told the media
Friday evening, as the crisis over his proposal to scale back benefits and rein in public-employee unions sharply escalated Friday.
Obama gave the green light this week for his campaign operation, Organizing for America, to jump into the Wisconsin donnybrook. Politico’s Ben Smith reports that Organizing for America has been staffing phone rooms, filling buses with protesters, and urging supporters to support the labor disruptions in Wisconsin that have led to hundreds of school closures and the effective shutdown of the state legislature.
Obama this week delivered a media broadside, charging that Walker is “short sighted” for rejecting a federal handout to build a rail connection between Milwaukee and Madison. Obama also blasted Walker for conducting “an assault on unions.”
Walker offered the president some friendly advice during an appearance Friday morning on Fox News. “It would be wise for the president and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budget, which they are a long ways from doing,” said the Wisconsin Republican.
Now it appears the cavalry is coming for Walker, in the form of grass-roots conservatives and the tea parties.
Tea party activists are expected to show up in droves to the “I Stand with Scott Walker Rally” scheduled for noon Saturday on the south steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol. The event is being hosted by American Majority, the nonprofit conservative leadership training organization.
Increasingly, the battle lines in the conflict are clear. On one side are Obama and big labor. On the other are Walker and grass-roots conservatives.
"We won't let intimidation and bullying tactics destroy opportunity and prosperity for future generations,” Tea Party Patriots leader Everett Wilkinson tells Newsmax. “America is broke and we can't afford the unions creating an ‘untouchable’ class.”
The political stakes for Obama could hardly be higher.
Now that Obama has stepped into the fight, it’s a fight he better win. Wisconsin and neighboring Ohio have a lot in common. Both face massive deficits. Both replaced Democratic governors with Republicans in November. And both are considered must-win states for any Democrat who hopes to capture the White House in 2012.
If public opinion turns against the protesters now shutting down schools and blocking Wisconsin’s State Assembly, Obama could find his road back to the presidency suddenly strewn with potholes.
The embattled Walker, whose state faces a $3.6 billion deficit, continues to stand strong despite the tens of thousands of union protesters jamming their way into the Capitol.
Asked to comment on the 14 Democratic state senators who have fled Wisconsin to filibuster passage of his serious budget reform proposals, Walker told the media: “The reality is, they’re not doing their jobs.”
Politico.com reports that the fight in Wisconsin “has become a national partisan flashpoint.”
House Speaker John Boehner is charging that Obama’s political machine is “inciting” the labor unrest in Wisconsin. He adds that Obama is trying to “demagogue reform-minded governors.”
Boehner compared the Wisconsin demonstration to the labor riots in Greece, with one notable difference. These disturbances, he said, are “fueled by President Obama’s own political machine.”
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe chimed in Friday, announcing that his organization is urging tea party activists around the country to step up to support Walker.
“The taxpayers of Wisconsin can no longer afford to give public sector unions a free ride,” Kibbe said.
That tea party groups and the president are both pouring resources into Wisconsin indicates that the labor dispute there has spiraled into a major political battle over what to do about the billions in deficits bleeding from more than a dozen states around the country.
States controlled by Democrats, such as Illinois, are responding to the deficits by making modest spending cuts while hiking taxes, floating new municipal bond offerings, and trying to stretch out their accounts payable.
In contrast, the states led by Republican governors – including Florida, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio – are undertaking much deeper reforms. Several of them, for example, are rejecting hundreds of millions in federal inducements to undertake major infrastructure projects – rail lines and commuter tunnels. They say those projects will only create more debt in the long run.
The Republican-led states are slashing expenses and requiring public employees to pay a larger fraction of benefit costs. Like Walker in Wisconsin, they are focusing their policies like a laser beam to do one thing: Creating an environment they believe will spur private-sector job creation.
Which strategy enables states to escape their current economic morass figures to play a major part in the 2012 presidential narrative. Democrats and Republicans alike are aware that a litany of states – Ohio, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Indiana, to name a few – are considering their own austerity measures and are carefully watching as events unfold in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin impasse escalated Thursday when Democratic state senators, unable to muster the votes to stop Walker’s budget bill, simply crossed state lines to flee Wisconsin. That left the 19 Republicans in the Wisconsin senate one vote shy of the 20 senators that, by law, must be present for a quorum to pass legislation.
Several Wisconsin school districts, meanwhile, closed their classrooms on Friday due to the large number of teachers who called in sick to attend protest rallies over Walker’s proposals.
Walker’s bill would require state workers to kick in about 6 percent of their salaries to cover their pension plans. Their contributions to their health-insurance contributions would increase from 5.8 percent to 12.6 percent.
So far the labor protests don’t appear to be drawing much public sympathy. Fox News reported Friday that the typical public-sector employee in Wisconsin earns an average of $51,000 per year. The average private sector worker, by contrast, earns about $38,000 annually. Also, private-sector workers contribute much more to their own benefits, while public-sector benefit plans are generally considered much more generous.
Wisconsin Democrats say Republicans are exploiting the state’s budget crisis to try to hurt unions. They point to provisions that would restrict public-sector unions to only negotiating salary hikes tied to hikes in the consumer price index. Also, the bill calls for unions members to vote annually to re-certify the union’s representation.
How long the self-imposed exile of Wisconsin’s Democratic senators continues is anybody’s guess. So far, state officials say they’re powerless to make them return.
Democrats apparently hope to stall for time in the hope that a media deluge of daily protest images creates a political backlash that forces Wisconsin Republicans to reconsider. But so far there’s no indication the strategy is working.
“Democratic legislators in hiding and not legislating, teachers on sick-out and not teaching, and students out of school and not learning,” Tea Party Patriot founders Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler said in a statement released to the organization’s national membership Friday evening. “Most importantly, we see our president, who is supposed to be a leader, not ‘leading.’
“Is it any wonder that public opinion has turned against the president, the Democrats, public employee unions, and their thugs?" they asked.
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