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The savings were particularly embarrassing for Walker’s political foes. After Walker’s budget passed, Milwaukee’s Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett, a potential challenger in this summer’s recall, hysterically warned that the governor’s cuts in state aid would make the city’s structural deficit “explode.” Not only did that not happen but because the city no longer had to negotiate health-care benefit changes with unions – a direct result of the curbs on collective bargaining – the city actually posted a $11 million net gain for its 2012 budget. But then that wasn’t the kind of “explosion” Barrett had been threatening.
As a consequence of the savings, many of Wisconsin’s school districts have been able to avoid the kind of painful layoffs that teachers unions had warned were imminent. For instance, the Wauwatosa School District faced a $6.5 million shortfall and the prospect of cutting 100 jobs. But because the teachers union abided by Walker’s budget and agreed to pay a higher percentage of health insurance premiums and contribute to their retirement plans, the school was able to save all of the jobs. Similarly, the Kaukauna School District was able to transform a $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus, allowing the district to hire more teachers and even to set aside money for merit pay, something teachers unions’ had long opposed. Indeed, as the governor’s office notes, new teacher hires outnumber layoffs and non-renewals of teaching jobs by 1,213 positions. That’s not to say that there have not been layoffs. The governor’s office points out, however, that nearly 70 percent of those layoffs have come from the three school districts that rejected Walker’s reforms.
There are also growing signs that decreasing the burden of the public sector has allowed Wisconsin’s private sector to revive. In January and February alone, Wisconsin gained nearly 20,000 private sector jobs, even as its unemployment rate was around 6.9 percent – the lowest in the state since 2009. From a budget deficit, Wisconsin is projected to post a budget surplus in fiscal year 2012. Rather than “ruining” Wisconsin, as Walker’s union detractors maintain, he may have sown the seeds of its economic recovery.
It does not follow from these achievements that Walker has accomplished everything he set out to do. Private sector job growth remains sluggish, despite the recent upturn, and Walker is still some distance from making good on his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs. Still, it’s hard to see how these challenges will be overcome if the state reverts to a status quo ante that saw public-sector unions and Democrats join forces to run up a $3.6 billion deficit and unleash the kind of budget crisis that made Walker’s austerity reforms necessary.
Wisconsin’s voters seem to be coming around to that view. Although the state remains deeply polarized, Walker’s favorability ratings are on the rise. A recent Marquette Law School poll showed Walker in a statistical dead heat with his possible Democratic challengers. The bigger problem for Democrats is that the reforms they are intent on demonizing have resulted in cost savings and jobs rather than the crisis that their union allies had predicted. If that becomes more widely known in the months ahead, that truly would be a disaster for Walker’s opponents, albeit not of the kind they had been warning about.
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