In Wisconsin, battle lines are drawn.
As most Americans are now well aware, the confrontation in Wisconsin has become a "line in the sand" moment reverberating throughout the entire nation. The sides are clearly defined: Wisconsin's public employee unions, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Barack Obama's Organizing for America, national labor leaders, and the president of the United States, versus Wisconsin Republicans, Tea Party activists, and taxpayers fed up with runaway government spending. Yet what Americans might not know is this: the animus Democrats and their allies are confronting has been substantially created by Democrats themselves: welcome to a "stimulus generated" confrontation.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the Stimulus Bill, was ostensibly supposed to fund "shovel-ready" jobs and keep unemployment at 8%. Since unemployment is at 9% officially (and close to 17% in reality), and president Obama himself admitted there was "no such thing as shovel ready projects" last October, one might be forgiven for wondering where a $787 billion package, which quickly increased to $862 billion in federal subsidies, ended up.
Where a substantial portion of it ended it up was in state coffers, where it was used to shore up budget shortfalls. “There’s no doubt that the stimulus has helped maintain state and local government employment...it was a lot of money for two years that was largely fiscal relief [to the states], meaning that they had some flexibility. If it hadn’t been for that, they would have been making major cuts,” said Donald Boyd, a senior fellow at The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany. Now that the stimulus spending is decreasing, "[states] face really severe choices and clear voter sentiment largely against any tax increases. So that leads you to the spending side of the budget,” he added.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while private sector employees were bearing the brunt of the recession, government workers were largely spared: between June 2008 and June 2010, "the number of private-sector employees fell by six percent, but the number of state and local government workers declined by less than one percent."
And that was only the first stimulus package. Last June, the then-Democratically-controlled Congress and the Obama administration ponied up an additional $50 billion of deficit spending in "emergency aid" (read: more stimulus) to state and local governments. They claimed the money was needed to avoid "massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters." Republicans viewed it as nothing more than an attempt to "buy" the 2010 election. Regardless, it was a one-time payout and the money is gone.
Thus, reality has intruded. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker is faced with a $137 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, and a deficit of more than $3.6 billion over the next two. He has stepped into the breach with a plan that calls for Wisconsin state employees to contribute 5.8% of their salary to their own pensions, up from zero for most employees; a 6% increase to 12% for their own health care (the national average is 29%); the elimination of collective bargaining for such items as benefits and vacation time; the pegging of wage negotiations to the Consumer Price Index, raises exceeding which would have to be approved by a public referendum; eliminating currently-required union dues for state employees; requiring annual votes for unions to remain organized; and exempting police, firefighters and state patrol officers from collective bargaining limitations.
All of the above is accompanied by a promise not to lay off any workers. If the measure fails, up to 12,000 of the state's 300,000 public sector employees could lose their jobs. "I don't want a single person laid off in the public nor in the private sector and that's why this is a much better alternative than losing jobs," Governor Walker told "Fox News Sunday."
The changes resonate with a majority of the Wisconsin electorate. Walker and Republican legislative candidates ran on a platform of fiscal austerity in the 2010 election, and in a state where Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship, voters handed all three to Republicans--by substantial margins. For the first three days, demonstrations had been dominated by angry public sector employees, giving many Americans the (media-fueled) impression that this was a one-sided fight. On Saturday, however, thousands of pro-bill Tea Party protesters showed up. Many held signs saying they couldn't get there earlier because, unlike the state workers who had abandoned their job obligations to protest, they were working.
Apparently, Barack Obama, who characterized the bill as an "assault on unions," along with his organized labor allies, see the handwriting on the wall. According to Fox News, "the president and his political machine are offering tactical support" to the public service unions. Labor leaders are using $30 million "to stop anti-labor measures in Wisconsin and 10 other states." "I think it's a clear message," said AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman. "If you take on middle-class people and try to solve the budget crises on their backs, there's a price to pay. Many thousands of people will be energized to fight back."
"Middle class" may be somewhat euphemistic. At a March 2, 2010 meeting of the Milwaukee School Board, Deb Wegner, Manager of Financial Planning in that city, revealed the 2011 average annual teacher salary in that city was $56,500. Their benefits package raises that total to $100,005. The average median income in Milwaukee from 2006-2008, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, was just over $19,000.
As for "fighting back," it apparently eludes both the president and labor leaders that the "shellacking" Democrats and, by extension, their public union alliances enduring during the 2010 election, was the epitome of fighting back--by a public sick and tired of subsidizing people who make higher wages and have better benefit packages than they do. And as labor leaders themselves have indicated, this battle will not be confined to Wisconsin.
Nor is the battle confined to the states. In Washington, D.C., House Republicans have passed a bill to run the federal government through the fall containing $61 billion in cuts. Yet despite a projected record-setting deficit of $1.6 trillion, Democrats in the House and Senate overwhelmingly oppose the cuts, and the president has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
All of these developments indicate America is heading for an "all in" election in 2012. Democrats will continue to support their failed Keynesian economic model, budget-busting public service unions, and a democracy-be-damned-when-it-doesn't-go-our-way attitude illustrated by Wisconsin Senate Democrats, who literally fled the state in order to prevent a vote on the reform package. Toward this end, they will employ all the tactics currently being displayed in Wisconsin: noisy demonstrations, along with hate-filled posters, such as the ones currently referring to Governor Walker as "Hitler," the "Midwest Mussolini, " "mini-Mubarak," "Hosni Walker," a "terrorist" and a "rapist" of public employees. As in Wisconsin, they will picket the private residences and businesses of politicians in an attempt to intimidate them. Many public employees will abandon their jobs to demonstrate, or possibly stage strikes, "sickouts" (many schools in Wisconsin have been closed for three days due to a teacher "shortage"), or work "slowdowns" (reminiscent of New York's recent snow removal fiasco), to vent their frustration.
All of these tactics are premised on the idea that such thinking can capture a majority of the electorate in 2012. More likely, it represents the same arrogance which alienated Americans in 2010. It is an arrogance best exemplified by the president himself, whose promises to "bring Americans together" and get deficit spending "under control" are empty and fraudulent. It is the arrogance of a Democratic Party which continues to demonstrate its belief that taxpayers are little more than inexhaustible ATMs which can be "stimulated" into funding progressive ambitions, completely irrespective of fiscal reality. And it is the arrogance of public employee unions who believe they can browbeat Americans to get what they "deserve," without regard to the public's wishes--or their votes.
The bet here is a majority of that public will--once again--reject such arrogance in 2012.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.