Over the past six months, Wisconsin has been nothing short of a miracle. Newly elected Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans in the majority in Madison got just about everything they wanted during the past legislative session, and a state facing a projected $3 billion budget shortfall with no end in sight now has a projected $300 million budget surplus. The amazing successes in Wisconsin have emboldened the legislatures and political leaders of other states, who have seen the wonders resulting from a little political backbone and fiscal common sense.
After being held hostage by 14 AWOL Democrat senators, Walker succeeded in passing his budget repair bill, “Act 10,” which instantly fixed the $137 million deficit by requiring public employees to contribute just a little bit toward their pensions and health care, and by limiting their ability to collectively bargain. Wisconsin also ended the ludicrous automatic pay and benefit increases for public employee unions each budget year — closing a cash sinkhole which is eating states like California and Illinois alive. Last month the Wisconsin legislature passed its biennial budget, which Governor Walker promptly signed in a no-frills ceremony.
The repeal of much of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law has already improved the quality and lowered the cost of Wisconsin government exponentially. There are approximately 275,000 government employees in the state of Wisconsin. About 72,000 such employees work for the state, 38,000 for cities and villages, 48,000 for counties, 10,500 (full time equivalent) for technical colleges, and 105,229 for schools.
While only half of state employees are unionized, virtually all school district employees are unionized. Until recently, almost all conditions of unionized public employee employment had to be delineated in a collectively bargained agreement. Consequently, it was very difficult to remove bad teachers and to reward good teachers. It took an Act of Congress to remove even the worst teachers, and doing so could cost a community millions in attorney fees. A high school teacher in Cedarburg was fired for viewing porn at school while working on his school district computer, in violation of the high school’s computer use policy which strictly prohibited “accessing, sending or displaying offensive messages, pictures or child pornography.” (Among other images, Robert Zellner had retained photographs of female students of the district wearing bikinis while on a school-sponsored trip to Hawaii that Zellner chaperoned.) Zellner was a union activist, so the teachers’ union dug in and resisted the personnel change, filing suit in federal court and taking the matter all the way to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The union eventually lost, but in its nearly three-year effort to keep fired teacher Robert Zellner from returning to Cedarburg High School, the school district spent roughly $267,000 on legal expenses — enough to pay the annual salary and pre-Walker benefits of four teachers.
It has been well-reported that under collective bargaining, districts have been stuck with the teacher union health insurance company — like the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) in Wisconsin — which can cost $3,000-plus per teacher more over a plan that is virtually identical to that which another company is willing to provide. In Wisconsin, WEAC had grossly abused that privilege for decades, resulting in the unnecessary siphoning of millions of dollars from Wisconsin public schools. Taxpayers were the big losers.