Democrats and Big Labor — pardon the redundancy, but it matters in this story — teamed up to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and a handful of Republican state senators over the public-employee union reforms passed by Walker and the state legislature. One would then expect that the recall election would feature a debate over the PEU reforms and their outcomes on Wisconsin … right? Wrong, as the Wall Street Journal reports — because the outcomes are relentlessly positive:
Since last summer, unions have been throwing millions at defeating the man who reformed collective bargaining for government workers and required union members to pay 5.8% of their paychecks toward pensions and 12.6% of their health insurance premiums, modest contributions compared to the average in private business. As the May 8 Democratic recall primary nears to determine who will run against Mr. Walker on June 5, this should be their rhetorical moment ne plus ultra.
So, let’s see. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the front-runner, has focused his campaigns on jobs, education, the environment and “making communities safer.” One of Mr. Barrett’s ads singles out “Walker’s War on Women,” with nary a mention of collective bargaining. Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk is heavily supported by union groups, but even her issues list makes only passing reference to collective bargaining.
No wonder. Since Mr. Walker’s reforms went into effect, the doom and gloom scenarios have failed to materialize. Property taxes in the state were down 0.4% in 2011, the first decline since 1998. According to Chief Executive magazine, Wisconsin moved up four more places this year to number 20 in an annual CEO survey of the best states to do business, after jumping 17 spots last year.
The Governor’s office has estimated that altogether the reforms have saved Badger State taxpayers more than $1 billion, including $65 million in changes in health-care plans, and some $543 million in local savings documented by media reports. According to the Wisconsin-based MacIver Institute, Mayor Barrett’s city of Milwaukee saved $19 million on health-care costs as a direct result of Mr. Walker’s reforms. Awkward turtle.
So now the recall election will be fought on mundane political issues like jobs, education, and the environment? Why, pray tell, did Wisconsin need a recall election to revisit these long-term issues? If Wisconsin voters want two-year terms for their chief executive, they could amend their state constitution to provide for that. That way, they could budget properly for two-year terms and plan for all of the costs of the elections.
And don’t kid yourselves — those costs are considerable:
And to afford this unusual and rare show of democracy at the polls, taxpayers around the state will be paying the bill starting next week with the Democratic and Republican recall primary election.
“Approximately $8 million, a little more than $8 million and that’s the cost for each recall election at the local level,” said Reid Magney, spokesman for the state’s Government Accountability Board in Madison.
That’s $8 million for the primary recall election and another $8 million for the general recall election. In all $16 million for both statewide elections in which local municipalities pay their share.
In Green Bay the total cost could climb to $80,000, according to Mayor Jim Schmitt. Money he says could be put to better use.
“Well there’s a lot of things, it’s a tight budget so $70,000 to $80,000 is significant,” said Schmitt. “You look at anything from improvements to infrastructure, to adding more things to police, fire.”
In fact $80,000 for Green Bay, or Appleton or any other city, could nearly pay for three new police squad cars currently in the Green Bay budget for $28,000 each.
Voters in Wisconsin have a clear choice in the upcoming elections. They can vote for the man who saved them $1 billion while cutting taxes, or for the party that cost them $16 million for no good reason whatsoever, and which isn’t even running on the issue for which they demanded this ad hoc election.
Update: Barrett and Falk may have a lot more to explain about increased costs, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
But Barrett and aldermen have relied on user fees to bear more costs that otherwise would be covered by property taxes. While the levy rose 25% in eight years, revenue from the four major municipal service fees jumped 132%, for combined tax and fee growth of 43%.
That was an average combined increase of 4.6% a year, or nearly twice the average inflation rate of 2.5% during that period. Taxes and fees decreased only in 2011 – a budget introduced during Barrett’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign – and increased less than inflation this year.
City budget chief Mark Nicolini has said the tax and fee increases were needed to preserve city services and reduce infrastructure maintenance backlogs in the face of state aid cuts and rising costs for energy and employee benefits. In 2010, stock market losses forced a $49 million city contribution to the city pension fund. Since then, Barrett and aldermen have set aside cash to deal with projected future pension costs.
For her part, Falk set a goal of increasing the tax levy by no more than population growth plus inflation. She fell short of that goal four times.
In 2004, the levy rose 4.8%, more than a percentage point higher than the limit she had set. In 2008, the levy growth was less than one-tenth of a percentage point above her limit – 3.36% instead of 3.3%.
The most significant increase was in 2010, when the levy went up 7.9% at a time when her limit would have allowed just a 1.2% rise. In 2011, the levy went up 3.4%, more than double the 1.5% called for in her growth formula.
Overall, the levy grew 80.5% an average of 4.3% a year, during Falk’s tenure.
Vote for the man who balanced budgets while lowering taxes, or one of the two Democrats who hiked fees while increasing spending. That’s not exactly a tough choice.