Wisconsin can afford tax cuts, not teachers?

Yevgeny Shrago

Ohio and Indiana have followed Wisconsin into the Randian dream of breaking public sector unions by stripping them of dearly bought collective bargaining rights. Although most Americans (when polled by someone other than a Republican quasi-operative like Scott Rasmussen) oppose Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan, don’t expect this to be the sort of issue that drives votes outside of these states in 2012. Lowunionization rates, compounded by the last Congress’s failure to pass the Employment Free Choice Act, means that the battles this month may be the last stand of American labor unions.

The larger issue here, however, is the Republican crusade to cut government by eliminating “waste” and “fraud.”  In this case, waste involves the salaries and jobs of teachers, firemen and police officers, not to mention the thousands of other providers of important public services. At the federal level, there was only one nod to the burgeoning problem with entitlements in the latest grand bargain budget plan: cuts to the Social Security Administration’s administrative apparatus. The people ensuring that claims aren’t fraudulent and being disbursed as effectively as possible are apparently the “waste” and “fraud” we’ve been looking for.

The big lie is that these cuts provide any meaningful savings. In Wisconsin, it’s worth noticing that Governor Walker’s cuts don’t actually balance the budget. The actual budget savings this year come from an uncontroversial restructuring of the state debt and it’s not only on the most pessimistic reading of state obligations that any deficit exists this year. Walker claims that the cuts are necessary to close the $3.6B gap coming up in Wisconsin’s next two year budget. Maybe, but according to the 2009-2011 Wisconsin budget report (.PDF link), commitments in 2011-13 were scheduled to fall to an all time low. Governor Walker hasn’t introduced the 2011-2013 budget yet because he’s taking time to campaign against the public sector unions. Could the projected shortfall be so large because Governor Walker has already cut taxes and plans to eliminate the state corporate income tax entirely? While Scott Walker talks about how the sacrifices public employees would make are “modest, at least to those outside government”, he continues to reinforce the Republican mantra that any sacrifice is too much for big business.

Of course, in the context of Grover Norquist’s famous dictum “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”, this tax cut/pay cut dance makes sense. With every wave of public sector pay cuts that will follow the breaking of the unions, the most talented public servants leave to the private sector, where they can make more money for equivalent work.* When the remaining employees are asked to do more to cover for their departed peers and their union can’t protect them, they can’t do the work as well. This will reinforce the Republican talking point that big government doesn’t work and grease the wheels for another round of public sector cuts. Eliminating collective bargaining rights just makes this dance easier.

*Republican claims that public sector workers are overpaid relative to the populace willfully ignore the fact that they also are far more likely to hold a college degree, and that they earn less than the average private sector worker with such a degree.

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