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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chicago Tribune Editorial: Wisconsin speaks. Again.

By endorsing Walker's cost cuts, taxpayers make public spending nationwide an issue for Nov. 6 and beyond

With their ballots Tuesday, a majority of Wisconsin voters endorsed dramatic changes Gov. Scott Walker has delivered: Taxpayers see the $1 billion in taxpayer money that Walker's ideas have empowered state and local officials to save. They see that property taxes have fallen on his watch. They see that, rather than decimating government workforces, the cost-cutting has averted layoffs of many teachers and other public employees.

Through his signature Act 10, which became law not quite a year ago, Walker and his legislative allies have restructured how state and local governments work — the scope of their activities and the compensation they pay. This is the fourth election, beginning with the general election of 2010, in which Wisconsinites essentially have said they support that aggressive restructuring.

Many of those voters also expect that, going forward, the dividends for Wisconsin residents, their school districts and other governments will continue to grow. As old labor contracts expire, public officials will write into the new contracts the other Walker-inspired personnel provisions — such as higher (but still relatively inexpensive) employees' contributions to their pension and health plans — that have lowered government expenses. New labor pacts, that is, should keep reducing government costs across Wisconsin.

On Tuesday evening, CBS News issued early exit polling results that attest to how sophisticated the voters immersed in this passionate Wisconsin debate over taxes and spending have become. And how sharply divided they are. The Wisconsin electorate spends its time bivouacked in battle-ready encampments.

Some 54 percent of voters told pollsters they have a favorable view of government employees unions; 43 percent do not. That said, some 50 percent of voters approve of Walker's restrictions to collective bargaining; 48 percent do not. More generally, CBS reported, 54 percent of voters think government should have a more limited role in solving problems; 42 percent say government should do more.

But the rancor preceding Tuesday's election, the strong voter turnout and the urgency for both sides to explain What This Means will influence the five months between now and Nov. 6. Democratic and Republican pols coast to coast see taxpayers in traditionally liberal-leaning, high-taxes, high-services Wisconsin saying they want to cut government costs, debts and compensation. The American Enterprise Institute calculates that even after Act 10, the source of so many accusations of oppression, the average state worker receives wages and benefits of $81,637, versus $67,068 for a similarly skilled private sector worker. X minus Y equals (gulp) $14,569.

On Tuesday, a majority of the voters who for a year and a half have spent the most time weighing those sorts of numbers reaffirmed that they think their Wisconsin governments had grown too elephantine, too expensive.

There's another elephant in the room: Act 10 ended the compulsory collection of union dues by government employers. It turns out that when workers have a free choice of whether to keep paying, many decide that it isn't worth the money. We were surprised last week by a Wall Street Journal report that Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees plummeted from 62,818 in March 2011 to 28,745 in February 2012. At the American Federation of Teachers, 6,000 of 17,000 Wisconsin members have walked away.

Drop-offs that stark have implications not only for the unions, but also for politicians who rely on union donations to fund their campaigns.

After Walker's victory, the implication of which we're surest is this: Government spending and taxpayer debt, the issues that spectacularly animated the politics of the 2010 election cycle, will be potent in 2012. Wisconsin is but one reason. Turmoil in European nations that spent and borrowed themselves into disaster will focus Americans on what can happen when public officials spend money they don't have.

Wisconsin voters again have affirmed their decision:

Spending discipline is the order of the day.


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