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I’m Proud of My Wisconsin

by Kim on February 18, 2011 · 34 comments

A Note: This post has nothing to do with books. It’s about the current political situation in Wisconsin, which is also important to me. But if you’re not interested in that, feel free to skip this post and go about your day.

I used to be politically minded. In high school, I participated in regular mock legislative sessions. I always had an opinion in my political science and social studies classes. In college, I helped found a political magazine. I organized memorials for September 11 and wrote editorials in our school paper. I was involved.

But somewhere along the line I got cynical. I got tired of rhetoric and two political parties and name-calling. I started to think that politicians didn’t care, they didn’t listen, and they were just in it for the power. I started to feel like I could never know enough to have an educated opinion, so I just stopped voicing them.

Major happenings in Wisconsin this week have helped inspire me about politics again. A little background: Our Republican governor, Scott Walker, introduced a “Budget Repair Bill” designed to deal with Wisconsin’s upcoming budget shortfall of $136.7 million. (A shortfall he may have engineered himself). However, the bill went a lot further than just some fiscal issues. According to one newspaper,

Walker is looking to remove collective bargaining rights except for salary for roughly 175,000 public employees, from school teachers to garbage collectors — although local police, fire and the state patrol are exempt. Any requests for a salary increase higher than the inflation rate would have to be approved by a referendum. … The bill also makes union dues optional for state workers; requires an annual vote by union members to maintain certification and eliminates health care or pension benefits for any limited term employees.

The protests in response to this radical proposal have been going on since Monday, each day bigger than the one before. Hundreds of people testified to the Joint Finance Committee about the bill (it may have been thousands, I can’t find the number to verify). College students left class. High school students walked out of school. Teachers called in sick. School districts shut down. High school students, on a day off,  joined their teachers. Police and firefighters — union members actually exempt from the bill’s crackdown — showed up for support. More than 10,000 people converged on the Capitol to voice their dissent.

However, Walker and the Republicans in both the Senate and Assembly refused to negotiate on most provisions of the bill. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans amended the bill, but the changes still left the substance — eliminating collective bargaining for public employees — in place. Walker threatened to fire 1,500 people and take 200,000 children off Medicaid if the bill does not pass, alternatives that are not legally possible but designed to scare people. After the Joint Finance Committee passed the bill, it seemed like a relatively quick path through the Senate and Assembly and on to Walker’s desk to be signed.

But then, something crazy happened yesterday: Democrats in the Senate didn’t show up for the vote. And without them in the chamber, the Senate didn’t have a quorum (enough people to hold a vote), and the bill was delayed.

From there, the story just gets hilarious to the point of being almost absurd. The Senate did a “Call of the House,” and sent the Senate Sargent at Arms to look for the missing Senators. After checking their Capitol offices and discovering they were, in fact, not in the building, the search expanded. Rumors abounded that state troopers were called in to help find them or that these Senators could be handcuffed and forced to return. At this point, it appears they are just over the border in Rockford, Illinois, where Wisconsin law enforcement can’t get them.

It was gleeful pandemonium — at least what I could pick up following the events from my computer at work.

Normally, I wouldn’t condone not showing up for your job as a way to get what you want. But in this case, I’m not sure what other options there were. Whether or not you agree with the substance of Walker’s proposal, the fact remains that he and the Republicans included union busting policy measures in a fiscal bill and refused to negotiate with anyone. That’s not the way to write or pass legislation, and, given their behavior, I think they know it.

After tens of thousands of people tried to make their voice heard, the Senate Democrats took the only course of action they felt they had left. It’s civil disobedience at its finest, and it makes me proud. I’m not sure how long this can hold out and, frankly, if it will end up making a difference as to whether the legislation passes or not. I hope it will, but I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s a great time to see democracy in action in Wisconsin right now, and I’m proud to be here.

Photo Credit: Mark Reichers

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Man of la Book February 18, 2011 at 7:51 am

In NJ we have the same issues, only that our shortfall is $10 BILLION.

I actually don’t see anything wrong with the proposal (as you summarized it), I think that while immediately saving a “few” bucks, the long term savings are enormous.

It seems to me the governor is trying to:
1) release the union’s choke hold on legislatures
2) make sure that the benefits gets to those who earn them
3) bring in the public sector’s salaries inline with reality

From what I understand, the Democrats were simply spineless since they approve of his measures but are afraid to vote.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Man of la Book: I don’t think the Democrats approve of the measure, and that’s why they left. Walker is trying to ram it through, and simply won’t negotiate on any parts of the proposal. That, to me, is the biggest problem.

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Thomas at My Porch February 18, 2011 at 8:03 am

I am sympathetic to your views on the current state of affairs in Wisconsin. But what makes me crazy is that there is a huge disconnect between what voters think they want and what they really want. In the last election cycle all across the country progressives and Republican moderates were booted out of office by an electorate that doesn’t seem to understand the implications of their decisions. The Kentucky Congressional delegation is hellbent on cutting the federal government, yet for every dollar that Kentuckians send to Washingtion they get $1.51 back. How about we take away that extra $0.51? And the extra funds that go to red states largely comes from blue states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, etc. (Hat tip to Paul Begala). Then you have Texas that is hellbent on defunding education to the point where Barbara Bush penned an op-ed piece pleading that Texas not make an already bad school system even worse. Texas is 47th in the nation in literacy, 46th in math, and 49th in SAT scores. Yet they want to cut more. (Hat tip to Gail Collins) And these types of stories are repeating all over the country and in Washington. Even here, where we don’t have ANY vote in Congress our previous Mayor was booted from office despite having improved schools, decreased crime and kept the city’s financial ship in order. All because he didn’t hold enough hands. He stupidly thought his record would speak for him. And in this city of 95% Democrats, this was Dem on Dem stupidity. Something is so out of whack right now.

I don’t know why voters have become so gullible and frankly, so stupid. Maybe it is too many years of underfunded schools.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Thomas: Scott Walker didn’t win by much of a majority in Wisconsin, but I do think there was some apathy during the election cycle. And a lot of negative response to Democrats on the national level and concerns about jobs.

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Man of la Book February 18, 2011 at 8:23 am

@Thomas, it’s not just in WI or TX or NJ (which, by the way, gets the least amount of money back from Washington in comparison to what we send) – it’s all over the US.

The politician­s like to pump up religious/­emotional causes as a measure of “divide and conquer” and to divert attention from really important, albeit boring, issues (unemployment, health care, economy, etc.).

If the masses start paying attention to these important issues, instead of trivial but highly emotional issues (gay marriage, abortion, etc.), the political class would find themselves without a job and without the fortune they tend to make while in office.

When you start talking about these important issues to the average person their eyes start to glass over or they start spewing party propaganda­. If the average person cared about any of these issues 90% of the politician­s would be replaced every election.

Mention gay marriage, abortion or any other minor but divisive issue and you have a heated conversati­on on your hands.

If you ever get a chance, read a book called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservati­ves Won the Heart of America” by Thomas Frank a fascinatin­g look about why people vote against their best interests when politician­s play up emotional issues instead of actual economic policies.

Granted Mr. Frank talks about conservatives, but the same could be said for liberals.

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Amy February 18, 2011 at 8:35 am

Wow, that is a shocking bill I have to say. And while it would make me proud of those standing up to fight it… how sad is it to know that in a democracy the thousands of people protesting can do nothing and elected officials have to leave the state in order to try to get the people’s voices heard?? Yikes.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Amy: It’s pretty drastic. At this point, the legislative Democrats and Union leadership have agreed to the monetary parts of the proposal, but want to maintain their collective bargaining rights. Walker and the Republicans are refusing to negotiate on it. I guess they don’t have to, since they do have a majority, but it seems to me like they should.

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Thomas at My Porch February 18, 2011 at 8:40 am

@Man of la Book: I agree it is all over the country. And I would generally agree with your comments on social issues, but I don’t really think they were they impetus in the last cycle. I think it was the economy. But the choices that people made because they were freaked out about the economy don’t really fit the reality of the situation.

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Man of la Book February 18, 2011 at 8:45 am

@Thomas & @Amy – this is not “just happening”. The state’s governors find themselves in a situation where at least 30 years of financial mismanagement, fraud, waste and bad leadership have come due.

The promises made cannot be kept (and never could be kept but everyone ignored it when times were good), the entitlements that people worked for can no longer be provided and cuts have to be made. Unfortunately, as mentioned by Thomas, we do not hold politicians responsible for their actions.

Where the cuts are made is the issue. Most politicians will cut where it hurts the public the most, not where needed (otherwise they admit to 30 years of waste and fraud).
For example: two years ago New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine (D) cut $4 million off the budge by closing or downsizing services at public parks. All the while he was building a $90 million park behind the statehouse (contracted to a Pennsylvania firm).

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Chris February 18, 2011 at 9:33 am

Thanks for the coverage, Kim! I’ve been out there at the statehouse every day with the protesters and the atmosphere is electric.

@Man of la Book, I’m an economist by trade and nine times out of ten when you see union protests what you’re assuming is the reality and I’d be right there with you. That’s not the case here, at all, though. The unions agree that the situation is rough and have already agreed to a dozen or more furlough days in each of the last two years with little complaint (we care about the state, that’s why we serve it). This is a whole different animal. The unions are annoyed and unhappy (as would you be) at having pay cut, insurance premiums increase (more than double for me, personally) and pension contributions hiked, but they have agreed to all of these concessions. Gov. Walker decided he could push even further and outlaw our unions entirely (or at least effectively). That’s just ridiculous. There’s just no reason to curtail people’s rights in this situation. That’s why you see 30,000+ people out there day after day. You wouldn’t see that level of protest over people irked about just a pay cut.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Chris: Thanks for your comments — I forgot about the furloughs from the last year, too. And I agree — the biggest issue here is the effective destruction of the unions, which is why there are so many protesters.

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Man of la Book February 18, 2011 at 9:56 am

@Chris, yes, that certainly sucks.
I think that furlough days are idiotic and don’t save any money (again, just a way to hurt the people). Is the governor trying to outlaw unions or break them apart?
I know in NJ the public sector has both union agreements and civil service agreements. Each one has its merits but both of them together suck the state dry.
However, in NJ bribes are legal (they are it’s called the “Pay to Play” laws) so the unions have a choke hold on politicians.

Just get ready though, from a public sector perspective 2011 is going to suck.

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Chris February 18, 2011 at 10:33 am

The bill in Wisconsin would immediately dissolve several active unions (university professors for one example) and put so many arbitrary restrictions on the others that even the strongest couldn’t survive long (all members must vote to “renew” the union annually, no dues can be collected, unions have no say in pension or insurance or other benefits, and can only ask for a pay raise smaller than the CPI). I don’t know what the situation is in New Jersey; it may well be that the unions there are unwilling to negotiate or are doing so in bad faith, but that’s not the case here. Here we’re just being railroaded.

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BibliophilebytheSea February 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

If I liked in WI, I would have been there as well, supporting these people. We watched in delight from our New Engand locale. You have to give them a lot of credit, and I truly believe that MORE and MORE people in similar situations across the US should have the guts to do the same. Enough is enough from the middle class!

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:44 pm

bibliophilebythesea: I’m curious what the national coverage has been like. Most of the coverage in WI tends to be on the positive side, but I think that’s because the protests have been so peaceful. I did see some stories about how it might be a trend for Republican governors to start with similar measure, so we will see what happens.

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nomadreader (Carrie) February 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

I know I’ve been following these developments a little more closely after almost moving to Wisconsin in December, but I’ve been fascinated (and inspired) by the response. It’s sad it took something so severe and dire to mobilize so many, but it’s refreshing to see community organizing have a resurgence.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Carrie: It is sad it took this to mobilize people, but it’s awesome to see it happening. And the fact that it’s been peaceful and positive makes me happy and proud.

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Vasilly February 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm

This morning on the news I watched what’s happening in Wisconsin. I’m also proud of so many standing up for what they believe in. We need to do that more often instead of standing back and watching so many disastrous actions taken by our state governments.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Vasilly: Yes, it’s very cool to see so many people mobilized. I hope they still active through the year and into the next elections, regardless of what ends up happening with this bill.

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Trisha February 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Being from Illinois, just south of Chicago, I can feel your pain regarding politics.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Trisha: Chicago is ridiculous, from everything I’ve heard :)

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Michelle February 18, 2011 at 9:32 pm

I love the fact that so many are protesting, but I must admit that my beliefs on unions are mixed. I’ve seen how they can cripple companies from operating efficiently and effectively. My parents and brother are all teachers in the IL school system, and their pensions are ridiculous – my dad is making over $100k in his RETIREMENT. Most people in the business world will never have that much in their pension funds, if they even get one, and most of us will end up funding our own retirement funds. I do struggle with the idea that we truly need unions of any sort anymore. They served their purposes historically, but is their time over?

I think the true lesson coming out of Wisconsin is the importance of standing up for your beliefs. It is time to speak up when you think the government is wrong. Change will never happen if we fail to use our voices. To me, regardless of your feelings on the union issue, the fact that so many are speaking up and making their opinions known is simply impressive.

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Michelle: I have mixed feelings about unions as well. Depending on leadership, I think there can be an abuse of power. And I want to know more about how the healthcare and pensions work between public and private sector employees — I’m still thinking about that.

But I agree — what inspires me is that so many people are making sure they are heard on this issue. It’s very cool to see and red about.

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Diana February 19, 2011 at 10:32 am

My family came from Wisconsin, and I’ve always thought it’s one of the coolest states in the nation. Nothing like this would ever happen in Florida. For one thing, our congressmen lack the creativity to outsmart their opponents by traveling to Georgia.

As an aside, congratulations to the Packers. Go, Cheese Heads!!

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Kim February 19, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Diana: I’m originally from MN, and we have some pretty weird politics too, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I walked down to the protests today to look around, it was crazy how many people were there, cheering and sharing their opinions.

Apparently the politicians feeling thing has happened before, but I’d never seen it used as a tactic for civil disobedience.

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Man of la Book February 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm

@Michelle, you hit the nail on the head. Promises were made (by most of the 50 states by the way, NY, NJ and CA are leading the way) which cannot be kept now and could not be kept when they were promised.

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Amanda February 20, 2011 at 10:46 am

Wisconsin is amazing and I really miss living there.

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Kim February 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Amanda: This is one of the first times since I moved that I felt like I was really part of the state, even though I didn’t actually do any protesting. it’s very cool to see though.

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Cass February 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Kim, I’m so glad you wrote about this! I was hoping you would.

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Kim February 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Thanks, Cass :) I wasn’t sure if I was going to or not, but once I started writing it just sort of poured out.

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Man of la Book February 24, 2011 at 9:43 am

The more I look into this issue the more I can see Walker’s point.
He says that public workers can have either a union or collective bargaining – but not both and I think he’s right.

Maybe he’s not going about it the right way but, if you have collecting bargaining why would you want to BE FORCED pay a huge some to a union?

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Man of la Book February 24, 2011 at 9:44 am

huge some = huge sum :)

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Lisa March 4, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Can I just tell you how thrilled I am to see this happening?! Now, I must admit that there are some things about unions and collective bargaining that I have a real problem with and I’m not sure that having the workers vote periodically as to whether or not they still want a union is a bad thing. But to take away all benefits except salary is ludicrous. We’re having a hard enough time getting people to go into the teaching profession. What scientist is going to choose to teach for much less than he/she could make in the private world when there are no other benefits to be had? Stick to your guns Dems!

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Kim March 5, 2011 at 10:33 am

Lisa: Yes, there are some thing about unions I have concerns about too, but I think they should be addressed separately rather than force it into different legislation. We’ll see how things work out.

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