Friday, February 25, 2011

The Call

Aside from providing much-needed comic relief, the Call Heard Around the World served some useful purposes. It certainly cleared up a few things. Now we know for sure that Scott Walker has been lying through his teeth all along as he's repeatedly insisted that his bill is all about budget balancing. And we know our governor has a Koch habit.

That Walker picked up the phone in the first place is instructive. He has steadfastly refused to talk to any of the protesters, and he's been unwilling to talk to Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate. But it was a different story when he thought OH MY GOD, David Koch is on the line.

So much for the false pretenses that this is all about Wisconsin and it's all about getting the state's financial house in order. When he thought he was talking to a billionaire right-wing kingmaker, Walker spoke the truth: "This is about public sector unions."

So much for the false pretenses that this is not part of a national crusade to break those unions across the country. When the online journalist posing as Koch said "you're the first domino," Walker said: "Yep, this is our moment." And he said "this is ground zero, there's no doubt about it." He even went on to compare what he's doing to what Ronald Reagan did to the air traffic controllers.

Walker also revealed a positively Nixonian streak when he told the Koch impersonator how he and those in his inner circle had thought about employing dirty tricks like planting troublemakers among the demonstrators. And how he might pretend to be open to talking to Senate Democrats who've fled the state in order to trick them into returning to the Capitol, only to clear the way for his GOP allies to pass his union-busting bill.

At other points in the conversation, the governor showed a troubling willingness to put his conscience in neutral. He spoke of how he had the attorney general looking into whether ethics charges could be brought against Democrats holed up in Illinois, but evidently saw no red flags when the fake Koch said "once you crush these bastards I'll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time." Walker replied: "All right, that would be outstanding."

Koch Industries is a registered lobbying agent in Wisconsin, and it is against the law in this state for lobbying interests to provide such perks to government officials here.

It is also against the law in Wisconsin for government officials to solicit campaign funds on state time in a state office using a state telephone, or to coordinate electioneering efforts with outside interests. Walker told his phone companion that "particularly in some of these more swing areas, a lot of these guys are gonna need, they don’t actually need ads for them but they’re going to need a message put out reinforcing why this was a good thing to do for the economy and a good thing to do for the state."

Finally, just couldn't help but notice how the governor ended the conversation by saying "thanks a million!"

Yep, it was almost exactly a million.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Walker's Pants-On-Fireside Chat

Scott Walker insists there are two choices. Either break the unions in the name of saving money on health insurance and pensions, or massive layoffs. He said last night that unless his union-busting bill passes, some 1,500 public employees will lose their jobs by June with 5,000 to 6,000 more layoffs will be necessary in the next fiscal year. Pick your poison.

That's one whopper of a false choice.

Even if you count state employee costs that are federally funded or otherwise not paid for with general state taxes, total salary and fringe benefit costs for those workers account for less than a fifth of the overall state budget.

Walker's saying you either have to strip workers of their rights or a bunch of them will have to lose their jobs, but he's walling off over four-fifths of the budget and refusing to even acknowledge the countless potential budget-trimming options that lie therein.

The real menu of options also includes raising revenues in some way. Or at least not further cutting corporate taxes when the majority of companies already are not paying any. Just a few weeks ago Walker and his allies in the Legislature rammed through $67 million in new business tax breaks. Those could be delayed or, better yet, repealed.

Wisconsin has a broad array of real options to choose from, ones that would spread the sacrifice much more broadly than the phony either-or ultimatum Scott Walker has laid out.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pyrrhus Of Wisconsin

In response to congratulations for winning a costly victory over the Romans, King Pyrrhus of Epirus is reported to have said: "One more such victory will undo me!"

Scott Walker clearly has never studied up on Pyrrhic victories. There's been no sign so far that he has any inkling that winning his crusade against worker rights could end up being his undoing. Maybe he's right. Maybe it'll work out just fine for him in the end. Maybe it'll just be the state of Wisconsin that is undone.

It's easy to see how Scott Walker wins by busting unions. It's equally easy to see how the Republican Party wins. It's getting harder by the day to see how Wisconsin comes out of this a winner.

If Walker gets his way, the Koch brothers will be happy. They'll get a handsome return on their investment. They've lined up their dominoes and are planning on Wisconsin being the first to fall. Whether or not Walker's union-busting bill becomes law, his campaign makes him a hard-right hero and elevates him to the national stage. Puts him on the short list of vice presidential hopefuls. He can probably have his own show on Fox News if he wants.

The future doesn't look as bright for the state of Wisconsin. We'll have a demoralized and resentful state workforce. We'll have a hopelessly divided citizenry. We'll have a mostly-dysfunctional legislature grow even more paralyzed. Recall elections against those who vote for the bill, and recall elections for those who vote against it.

And then when the other shoe drops and the rest of Walker's budget plans are finally unveiled, local government officials will be informed of drastic cutbacks in state aid and will be thrust into the position of having to resort to the same treatment of local workers that state workers already are being subjected to under Walker. Although they won't be the ones who stripped them of their rights in the first place, they will be the ones who will have to cut their pay and take away some of their benefits and then watch them like hawks and bully them into submission when they become demoralized and resentful.

Every local official will in effect be wearing a Scott Walker mask. They will become the face of the discord and chaos and ill will that will visit their communities. Every school board member. Every superintendent. Every mayor and city alder. Every county executive and supervisor. Every village president and trustee. Every town official. Years spent cultivating good labor relations will be laid to waste.

The poor will get poorer, with deep cuts to low-income assistance programs like BadgerCare and Medicaid. The rich will get richer, with corporate tax breaks and all manner of other favors showered on the biggest campaign donors. The middle class will continue to gradually disappear. Public schools will get worse. So will many vital public services. Some will disappear altogether.

Maybe Scott Walker will win. But it will be the most Pyrrhic of victories for the people of Wisconsin.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why The Dummies Are Wrong

The ventriloquist dummies that pass for state policymakers these days are moving at breakneck speed to take away longstanding worker rights in Wisconsin. They say it has to be done right now to patch a hole in the state's budget for the current year, even though the Legislature's own nonpartisan budget analysts say there's no such short-term problem.

Green Bay-area business leader Paul Linzmeyer is right. What the dummies say is nonsense. Governor Walker and his allies in the Legislature are not doing this for budgetary reasons. Their inspiration is ideological. This is about politics, not state finance. This is about paying back big campaign donors and punishing political opponents. And yes, this is about union busting.

The health insurance and pension benefit concessions they are after would reportedly save the state about $300 million over the next two years. The deficit for the coming two years is now projected to be $3.6 billion. They expect us to believe it is worth ripping Wisconsin in two to solve less than a tenth of the long-term problem the state faces. And they expect us to believe it despite the fact it has become abundantly clear they could get the concessions without stripping workers of their rights.

These facts make the political games the dummies are playing plainly visible. All that aside, for me it boils down to this: Workers have a fundamental right to organize and collectively bargain with their employer. It is unacceptable under any circumstances to solve budget problems by taking away people's rights.

I am not a public employee. In fact, I've never been represented by a union in any job I've ever had. But I am not incapable of seeing and appreciating that all working people have benefited greatly from things unions have fought for and won over the years. We take for granted as a basic employment standard that workers have weekends off, 8-hour work days, 5-day work weeks, and paid vacation and sick leave. All of these things were won by unions.

My benefits aren't as good as those received by Wisconsin's public workers. My employer pays a third of the cost of the health insurance I have. I pay $789 a month out of pocket to cover my family, nearly $9,500 a year. There is no dental coverage. The Democracy Campaign covers one third of a rather meager monthly payment into an individual retirement account.

I'm not complaining. I consider myself lucky. I am paid to do work I love. My parents were dairy farmers and the family didn't have health or dental insurance at all when I was growing up. They had no pension plan. No weekends off or vacations either. Cows need milking twice a day, every day.

Although I fit the profile of someone who might resent public employee compensation, I can't begrudge state and local government workers their pay and benefits. A teacher's job is far more important than mine. A firefighter's is more essential. So is a police officer's. Plowing snow and picking up the trash are indispensable too.

Millions of dollars are showered on professional athletes for entertaining us. A good teacher is worth infinitely more to society than a good quarterback or starting pitcher or point guard. Yet I'm supposed to be bent out of shape because the average teacher in Wisconsin earns something like $51,000 a year? Hell, a truly outstanding teacher would be a bargain at $200,000 in my book.

A state budget is more than just an accounting of how much we'll be taxed and how those taxes will be spent. It is a reflection of our society's priorities. We need to get ours straight.

Businessman Wonders What Walker Is Thinking

Paul Linzmeyer is scratching his head.

Linzmeyer is a businessman. He ran companies in San Francisco, Chicago and Denver before returning to his home state in 1994 to become president and CEO of the Green Bay-based company Bay Towel. He helped establish an 18-county economic alliance in northeast Wisconsin now known as NEW North, and continues to serve on its board of directors. He is a past chairman of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Council on Workforce Investment. He currently chairs the Bay Area Workforce Development Board.

And he can't figure out Scott Walker.

Let me allow Linzmeyer to explain in his own words. He shared the following thoughts with me in an e-mail yesterday and gave me permission to post them today:

Governor Walker needs to take some basic organizational leadership courses to
help him understand how to engage the employees in coming up with creative and
innovative ways to deal with budget deficits. Clearly, if he wanted to be
respectful of employees who opted to have union representation, he would have
chosen a much less caustic solution. Granted, he has a monumental task in front
of him, but this is not a monarchy, and thus, the budget deficit must be a
problem solved in a collaborative manner.

Government employees – whether police, school teachers, snowplow operators – are doing work that enhances our quality of life. Like most processes, whether in business or in government, there are some that are inefficient, wasteful or just unpopular. Regardless of what we feel about the services that government performs, the fact is that people who do these jobs are committed to doing a good job. I would suspect that the breakdown in government of those employees who truly excel, those who really should be fired, and the bulk of those somewhere in the middle mirrors current business and other organizational models.

From a business perspective, (Walker's approach) is the worst way to engage people who we say are of value to our system. Think about it this way: You are a new leader of a company and you want to build trust with your employees. Do you start out by delivering a crippling attack on them without any discussion, and then tell those same employees that they are important to you? Government workers are necessary and the work they do has incredible value to our quality of life. They also have great ideas, and if they’re engaged in meaningful dialogue in which their voices are really heard, they could help fix this budget crisis.

Companies and organizations that want to be successful in the 21st century realize that they need to engage all their stakeholders, especially their employees, in a more meaningful way. That means sharing challenges and engaging in meaningful
dialogue that will renew the spirit of American workers towards innovative and
creative solutions.

I am hoping that the governor will reconsider his stance, but my fear is that his stance is ideological, not pragmatic. Trying to disguise this move against the unions as a budget move is disingenuous at best. Let’s maintain (what) has made Wisconsin great and start negotiations with the unions with the objective of changing the way Wisconsin does business.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Extreme Ventriloquism

In its first day, the Citizen Vigil for the Greater Good succeeded in outing plans to eviscerate collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Within hours of exposing what those who've taken charge at the Capitol were cooking up out of public view, their plan was all over the news.

The need for better surveillance is one of the reasons we started our vigil. This was the first time but won't be the last that we will force out into the open what they would like to keep under wraps until the last possible second.

But an even more important reason for doing this is to organize an ongoing opportunity for citizens to protest and agitate against the plutocratic extremism that has taken hold in our state government.

One of the things I said yesterday in my remarks at the kickoff of our vigil is that money throws its voice at the Capitol every day. What we have is not a legislature, but rather a parliament of ventriloquist dummies. There is nothing republican about the way these Republicans are doing the public's business.

Maybe most people have gotten so used to elections paid for by less than 1% of the population and politicians who then shamelessly pander to the donor class that they've lost the capacity to summon any resistance.

If that's the case, then most people had better wake up. These ventriloquist dummies who pass for elected representatives of the people have an agenda. A really long agenda.

This is union-busting ventriloquism. Next week, when the Legislature is not scheduled to be in session, look for them to convene anyway to ram through legislation castrating unions.

This is train-derailing ventriloquism. Governor Walker was willing to throw away $810 million because he is deeply in debt to an interest group that didn't support him for most of his long political career but loves him now.

This is wetland-destroying ventriloquism. To make one big campaign donor happy the dummies are willing to say so long to one of the state's remaining wetlands.

This is smokestack ventriloquism. Walker and his minions aim to make it difficult if not impossible for wind energy and biofuels to get a foothold here in Wisconsin, for more than a million reasons.

This is vote-suppressing ventriloquism. The dummie leader in the Senate said passing legislation requiring a photo ID to vote would be the first order of business, and sure enough, making it a little harder for everyone and a lot harder for a few to cast a ballot is on the fastest of tracks. Never mind the handful of documented cases of voter fraud have nothing to do with people trying to pass themselves off as someone else to vote, which is the only thing a photo ID requirement could possibly address. Never mind that this solution in search of a problem amounts to a poll tax.

This is power-abusing ventriloquism. These extremists are bent on trampling on checks and balances that have done this country proud for more than two centuries and giving the governor veto power over legislative oversight of rules made by executive branch agencies.

This ventriloquism is Robin Hood in reverse. They will rob from the poor and middle class and give to the rich. They've already doled out nearly $70 million in corporate tax breaks and are just getting warmed up. Word is there will be huge cuts in the budget for Medicaid and other health benefits for the poor and working families, big reductions in aid for public schools, and a wholesale abandonment of community development programs.

This is bigoted ventriloquism. We're hearing they will seek, most likely in the state budget bill, to get rid of the state's new domestic partner registry which gives same-sex partners in committed relationships limited health and legal protections.

This is no time for sitting on hands. The ventriloquists and their dummies are not resting.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Protection Money, 21st Century Style

We've reached that point where you are left with a little vomit in your mouth when you hear Scott Walker say for the umpteenth time that Wisconsin is "open for business." But at least we are getting a clearer picture of what he actually means. Wisconsin is open for old business. The state under Walker seems to want little to do with anything resembling a new economy or, god forbid, a green economy. Wisconsin is not open to high-speed rail. Or wind power or biofuels.

No wonder. We've written plenty about why Walker was willing to say goodbye to $810 million in federal rail funds. And as business reporter Mike Ivey pointed out in a lengthy piece published this week, the two special interests that want to slow down if not stop the spread of wind power gave Walker nearly $1.2 million to aid his run for governor. Oil, gas and coal interests scared by the emergence of biofuels gave him close to $128,000.

Protection rackets traditionally have been underworld criminal enterprises. Nowadays the payment of most protection money has been decriminalized and hides behind a seemingly innocent mask. Now it's called a campaign contribution. And there's no better illustration of the new racket than what old business interests in Wisconsin are doing to protect themselves from the economic destiny the rest of the world seems much more prepared to embrace.