Archive for February 19th, 2011

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The Wisconsin Standoff: Part I

February 19, 2011

Okay, so I’ve read some stuff – not extensively, mind you, but I’ve got a feel for the issues now – and so, armed with “half a bucketful of information” (as my Dad would say), here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

Whoever tossed in this number that the average teacher salary in Wisconsin is $ 100 K had a serious agenda. The information I read had it more around $ 45 K, a little higher in the “major urban areas” – which in Wisconsin includes places like Green Bay and Kenosha. Starting salaries are in the $ 30 K range, significantly lower than around here, the Chicagoland area. I’ve heard the 100 K number several times on TV and radio with no attempt to back it up, or for anyone to argue that it was grossly inflated. Even if you add in any health insurance or retirement contributions paid by the school district, there is no way you could double the average salary.

As a teacher myself, I’m never excited about having to pay more out of my own pocket when my school district was picking up the tab before. But notice I said my school district not the state of Illinois. Why these costs are being borne (assuming they really are) at the state level is hard for me to understand, unless it’s because some districts would be so poor that without redistribution of tax dollars they couldn’t hire teachers at all. With all that open country in northern Wisconsin, that may be true. It’s  not so in Illinois. Some districts receive more state aid than others, and I confess I don’t know how that works. I do know that for our size we receive less. Fortunately we’re a pretty well-off area, so we don’t live or die based on what the state legislature decides. When I taught in Ohio the reverse was true because we were so dependent on state aid.

But the intent was for public schools to be locally controlled and locally financed, not state or federally run or paid for. Gradually that’s changed, and in some places more than others. Apparently Wisconsin teachers’ retirement contributions and health insurance contributions are set at the state level, not locally. In that case, the state legislature is THE APPROPRIATE BODY TO MAKE THOSE DECISIONS, WITH THE ADVICE OF THE GOVERNOR. Locally, it would be the school superintendent (or other school administrator charged with that job) giving advice to the local school board, who then makes the same decisions. If the funding comes from the state, the state makes the call. Maybe you don’t like it, but then call your state representative, and tell him why. That’s assuming you can find him. The Wisconsin democrats high-tailed it out of town to deny a quorum. That’s taking their responsibilities seriously, isn’t it?

So if the whole thing was about teacher retirement and health insurance, no big deal. The legislature pays the bills, apparently, so they are the appropriate folks to decide how much money they have to do so. But, of course, that’s NOT the issue here…

Apparently the governor, who just took office, has decided this is the time to break the public employees unions’ stranglehold. It’s a gutsy move. If he loses, he’s a one-term and may accomplish little else. If he wins, other states will follow suit and maybe, just maybe, the public employee unions’ influence in politics, even at the national level, will dissolve.

He has a point here. If the unions won’t work with the legislature in times of serious financial hardship, everybody loses. The state economy spirals downward faster. Fewer businesses locate there. People move to warmer states with right-to-work laws. The state defaults, and the employees don’t get paid anyway, so what was the point? No blood from that stone, folks. Apparently the governor thinks he can make the case that the situation is that grim, and now is the time to change.

On the union side, everybody is pointing to the unions as being protectors of the workers against the evils of the state government (or business management, usually). This is often true, and at their best unions are a good protection against a management that would exploit the workers. That’s what unions came to be to do, after all. Unfortunately, they weren’t content with that. First, they had to make sure EVERYBODY was a member, whether they wanted to or not. I’m a member of a union because if I chose not to, I would be required to pay almost as much in “fair share” (?) because of all the “benefits” the union provides me.

Second, there were those pension accounts managed by union leadership. Money – lots of it – just sitting there. Way too much temptation for some, and there are too many stories of how pension funds were used illegally. (In my fair state, one of those who has traditionally used our teachers’ retirement funds illegally for other purposes has been the Illinois state legislature. Yep, when it’s the Teamsters, you get indicted, when it’s the Illinois House, it’s “sound fiscal management.”)

Then of course, with large numbers of dues-paying members comes money and power. Political power, of course. Union bosses who could influence elections. Unions who lobby the hell out of Madison, Springfield, Washington, wherever they need to influence lawmakers. The NEA is a huge lobby in Washington with a very liberal bias. They don’t ask me if I agree before they ask me for my dues.

State employees’ unions are particularly dangerous because many of the services those employees provide are necessary to the health and welfare of the state’s residents. It makes them more powerful, because you don’t want them to strike and shut down the government. (Although I’m trying to think of just why that’s a bad thing…) Anyway, in Wisconsin the proposal as I understand it would limit collective bargaining to wages, and that there would be a wage increase cap besides.

Also, employees would get to vote every year if they wanted to keep the union or not. That’s kind of a “vote of confidence” thing. I think that’s kind of intriguing. When the US Constitution was being hashed out, there were a number of proposals for the length of terms for representatives and Senators, some as short as a year. The problem was transportation in those days. Today, we could hold a referendum on our lawmakers every year, no sweat. (“But wouldn’t that put them in permanent campaign mode?” Go ahead, try to convince me they aren’t doing that now. Go ahead. Really.)

I don’t know if the state employees in Wisconsin should be able to collectively bargain more than wages or not. I admit mixed emotions about that and that I can make a bit of a case on both sides. I do know one thing: the people of the state of Wisconsin elected the legislature, and the governor, to provide a workable government for them. Not one that is bankrupt, or a kleptocracy. If the elected leaders decide this is the way it must be, they have the right to do so. If the people of Wisconsin decide they don’t like those decisions, they can vote their representatives out and replace them. This country is set up that way. It’s not Egypt. We don’t have mob rule. People protesting in Madison should not create policy. The elected representatives were sent to do a job, democrats and republicans alike, and they should be allowed to do their jobs. They need to hear from their constitutents, but making a logical case, not screaming threats at them.

At least, I hope we don’t have mob rule. If we do, woe to the Republic.

More on this as it sits in my brain a while.

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