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Pull over or shut up
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Them's fightin' words
Wisconsin wakes 'em up
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Why Americans are angry
        If there’s a state in the union deserving to become Ground Zero for a battle over the power and expense of public employee unions, it’s Wisconsin.
        I just never thought it would happen.
        Wisconsin folks never miss an opportunity to express pride over the state’s progressive history, dating back to the days of Sen. “Fighting Bob” La Follette. For the most part it has been a reliably blue state, sending liberal Democrats like Russ Feingold off to Washington.
        Even Republicans in Wisconsin tended toward moderation. The state’s longest-serving governor, Tommy Thompson, talked like a conservative and spent like a liberal. That’s how to get elected four times, apparently.
        Then came the fall elections of 2010. Wisconsin flipped more than any other state.
        Republicans won the governorship with Scott Walker and both houses of the legislature. Feingold was defeated by an unknown businessman named Ron Johnson in his re-election bid for the U.S. Senate. Likewise, Republicans captured the majority of the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives.
        A number of explanations have been offered. The most logical are, (1) people really were upset with President Obama over the economy and healthcare reforms, and Democrats caught the blame at the ballot box, and (2) in a non-presidential year voter turnout is not only lower, but the electorate tends to include a higher percentage of white, better educated and more affluent voters — translated, more conservative.
        So Wisconsin expected change.
        Maybe not this much change.
As most readers know, I’m sure, Wisconsin’s new Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a series of dramatic reforms. He ordered public employees to begin paying substantially into pensions and health insurance premiums, and then dropped the real bomb — the virtual abolition of collective bargaining for state employees, teachers, nurses and all other public sector union workers with the exception of police and firefighters.
        He said such radical change was necessary because of cuts coming when he made his final budget proposal. That came a few days ago. It cuts more than $1.25 billion from shared revenues with schools and municipalities. The plan also freezes property taxes, so school boards and city councils and county boards cannot try to make up for state aid cuts by jacking up local taxes on homeowners.
        The reaction has been swift and angry from union members and their supporters. Now that the budget is out, more anger is being added from school authorities and city leaders who anticipate deep cuts in programs and layoffs to make ends meet.
        No doubt, many readers have seen footage of tens of thousands of protesters occupying the stately Wisconsin Capitol Building in Madison. I must pause to give an approving nod to my fellow Midwesterners. The protests have been loud and inconvenient for those just trying to go about their business with the state. But there has been no violence. There has been cooperation between protesters and authorities. Plenty of police have been on hand but their professional skills have not been required.
        Even when the Capitol was locked and protesters were kept out so the building could be cleaned, the crowd just chanted to police ringing the site, “Let Us In — Please.”
        Only in the Midwest.
        So how does this play out?
        Tough question. Few answers.
        But I’ll venture some conclusions based on years of occupying the journalist’s perch watching the dynamics of Wisconsin politics.

1. Republicans are overreaching. They made that typical and often fatal political mistake of misreading a mandate. Last fall, voters were mad at Democrats. They had not fallen in love with Republicans.

2. Walker will win approval in the legislature for his plans, though some small modifications might be made. He has the votes. As commentator Pat Buchanan said recently, “Walker looks to have the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces.”

3. A lot of what he’s accomplishing is overdue. Wisconsin’s public employees rank in the middle among the 50 states for wages, but rank best in America for fringe benefits. Most public employees pay nothing toward their pensions and very little toward insurance premiums. That’s unsustainable and needed to change.

4. Abolishing collective bargaining is a political loser. Polls show the governor is under water on that issue. A lot of Americans are uncomfortable with a policy designed to silence workers’ voices.

5. The backlash will be severe. Voters will remain stirred up through the 2012 election. Obama will be on the ballot and the electorate’s demographics will be very different. Republicans already are in trouble, whether they know it or not.

     From a journalist’s standpoint, this is a piece of heaven. We are hopeless policy and politics junkies, and this is the stuff that gets us high. The arguments which started in Wisconsin are playing out in other states as well, a situation almost sure to spread as state and local government’s come under increasing budget pressure.
     The best part is watching so many complacent Americans suddenly get engaged. If this is what it takes to wake people from their undemocratic slumber, so be it.
Dispatch from Blizzardville
Bill Barth
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