Wisconsin and public-sector unions

Wisconsin's mostly Democratic voters delivered a stinging rebuke to public-employee unions Tuesday by retaining Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office by a decisive 7-point margin, 53-46 percent, in a rare recall election in a state that President Barack Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008.

Walker handily defeated his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in their union-friendly state. Even more surprising, nearly 20 percent of Obama supporters and 38 percent of union households voted for Walker. This surprising result has national implications for Nevada and other states facing budget deficits due to the unsustainable costs of overly generous benefit and retirement packages for public employees.

Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion budget deficit when Walker took office in January 2011, because of sweetheart deals negotiated by public-employee unions. Walker and the state Legislature were forced to make some difficult decisions, including restricting the unions' collective bargaining rights and making union membership voluntary. And now, union membership is down and the state is expected to have a $154 million budget surplus by next summer.

According to the neoconservative Weekly Standard, the decision to limit union bargaining rights "freed state and local governments from the de facto veto unions could exercise over their budgets and allowed taxpayers to ask public employees to contribute more ... to their own health care and pension benefits. Before the reforms most public employee union members paid less than 1 percent of their salary toward their pensions and contributed just 6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums." Nice work if you can get it.

So this was a case of bloated government offering unsustainable entitlements to public employees, and Wisconsin taxpayers and voters rebelled. Walker did exactly what he was elected to do, and the unions mounted a recall campaign financed by more than $20 million worth of contributions from public-employee unions led by the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and teachers' unions.

Here in Nevada, public-employee benefits and pensions are straining state and local budgets. My friend Ty Cobb Sr., an astute Reno political blogger, noted recently that "increasing concern is being generated by the prospect of governmental failure at the local/municipality level, driven mainly by rapidly rising compensation and especially retirement costs of public-sector employees." He cited the example of double-dipping Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a North Las Vegas Democrat and fire official "who made a whopping $452,000 in 2011." Those are taxpayer dollars, my friends.

Elsewhere, the story is the same. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed that the average annual pension for San Jose, Calif., police officers and firefighters who have retired since 2007 is a cool $95,336. Again, nice work if you can get it.

When he cut public-employee benefits and pensions, New Jersey's outspoken governor, Chris Christie, told union members, "You may hate me now ... but you'll love me in 10 years because if we don't make these changes, there simply will be NO benefits." Well said, Governor!

•Guy W. Farmer of Carson City is the Nevada Appeal's senior political columnist.


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