“Walker Survives Wisconsin Recall Vote,” read the tepid headline in Wednesday’s New York Times. Governor Scott Walker, however, did much more than survive. He defeated his rival, Tom Barrett, convincingly. His lieutenant governor did the same in her recall election. Significantly, this election marks the beginning of the end for dominance of state, county and city budgets by public employee unions.
Lost in the Wisconsin coverage is the fact that Tuesday’s election brought overwhelming votes elsewhere in favor of reducing overly-generous public employee pensions. In California, voters in two large cities decided enough was enough. San Jose voters passed Measure B by 71-to-29 percent. In San Diego, they endorsed Proposition B by 67-to-33 percent. In recent years both cities had been forced to cut back on libraries, recreation centers, fire and police services in the face of galloping pension liabilities. San Diego saw its annual contribution to pensions go from $43 million in 1999 to $231 this year, soaking up 20 percent of the city’s budget. In San Jose it went from $73 million in 2001 to $245 million this year — equal to 27 percent of the budget.
These events offer the necessary will to elected officials across the nation to pass reforms that will bring public employee pensions and health care contributions into line with private ones.
The process has already begun. In California, signatures have been gathered for a voter initiative, “Stop Special Interests,” on the November ballot that, if passed, would break the umbilical cord between the state treasury and union treasuries. In California, among others, the state deducts union dues from public employee paychecks and sends these directly to the unions, thus saving them the need to persuade public employees to sign up to let the union bosses use their money in elections. This is the umbilical cord and the California unions have used it to become the most powerful special interest in Sacramento, having great influence over the Democrat-controlled state legislature.
What happens when the umbilical cord is broken? It happened in Wisconsin last year as part of Governor Walker’s reform legislation. Dues stopped flowing from the state treasury to the unions. They had to sell their services to the workers.
Result: dues paying is down to 28 percent of the Wisconsin public work force.
Across the country, voter discontent has been building against overly-generous public employee benefits. Declining revenues in the recession sharpened public focus, along with the realization that, in many cases, these benefits had become far greater than they are in the private sector. In short, it began to look as if the taxpayers were working for their own employees.
What will the public employee unions do? Reeling from this loss, it is unlikely they will try another vengeance move such as the Walker recall. They also face a daunting task if many legislatures, county boards, and city councils propose reform measures, especially ones on the ballot for voters who are in no mood to continue “business as usual.”