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Last week’s Republican primary in Wisconsin was not the biggest battle in the Badger State. That will come this June, when Wisconsin Democrats, backed by the raging might of state and national government unions, will attempt to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker in a fiercely contested general election.
It will be a difficult fight for the embattled governor. That stems in large part from the boldness of Walker’s 2011 budget reforms, which made him a hero to conservatives even as they turned him into a hate figure for unions and the left. First, Walker ended the unions’ automatic collection of dues from members’ paychecks, cutting off a major source of union funds. Next he required state workers to contribute a modest 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and to cover 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums, thus bringing Wisconsin closer in line with private sector and national averages and giving the state a chance to get a grip on its spiraling finances. Most controversially, he restricted most public unions’ collective bargaining to salaries, canceling a corrupt and fiscally unsustainable cycle that saw unions negotiate generous perks with the same politicians they helped elect.
None of this has gone down well with the unions. If early signs are any guide, they will do everything they can to paint the reforms as a failure. As they push ahead with the recall, Walker’s opponents claim that he has presided over the “destruction of public education;” that he has forced thousands of teacher layoffs; and that he has triggered a “political and governing crisis.” The evidence, though, shows otherwise. Not only have Walker’s reforms not brought calamity upon Wisconsin, but there is a growing body of data that they have succeeded in precisely the policy areas that unions charge them with destroying.
Public education is a prime example. So far from being destroyed, the state’s public school districts have benefited from a wealth of savings made possible by Walker’s reforms. By limiting collective bargaining, Walker freed school districts to set contracts without union pressure for the first time in decades. The benefits have been significant. As the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s Christian Schneider points out in City Journal, collective bargaining produced contracts that forced the state’s school districts to purchase health insurance from WEA Trust, a non-profit tied to Wisconsin’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council. But after Walker’s reforms limited collective bargaining, districts could strike that requirement from their contracts and put the provision of health insurance up for bid in a wider market.
The result was savings. Schneider notes that when the Appleton School District put its health insurance contract up for bid, the WEA Trust “suddenly lowered its rates and promised to match any competitor’s price.” Thanks to the lower costs, Appleton is expected to save $3 million in the current school year. Appleton is not an anomaly. According to a report by the MacIver Institute, a free-market Wisconsin think tank, following the reform of collective bargaining, at least 25 school districts in Wisconsin reported switching health care providers or plans or opening insurance bidding to outside companies. The institute found that the measures will save the districts $211.45 per student. And the savings were not hypothetical. The institute found that, as of last September, certain school districts already had savings of $162 million dollars, or approximately $507 per student, as a result of Walkers’ reforms. If more school districts followed their example, the institute calculated, Wisconsin could see savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
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