If you think the failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin has nothing to do with New York, well, you’re simply not paying attention. As Wisconsin goes, so goes the nation. Or so we should hope.
The recall effort against Mr. Walker was framed as a working-class rebellion, a broad pushback against those who seek to shrink the middle class so that the rich could enjoy even greater affluence. Mr. Walker was portrayed as a tool of scheming capitalists intent on destroying the benefits of public employees because the wealthy deserve lower taxes.
Of course, nearly everything Mr. Walker’s opponents said was wrong. And voters clearly agreed. Mr. Walker won more than 53 percent of the vote despite his opposition’s slanders and the efforts of public employee unions from around the nation, who apparently felt they had a duty to interfere in Wisconsin politics.
Mr. Walker’s victory is a victory for all public officials, Democrat, Republican or independent, who understand that public employee benefits are strangling state and local economies around the nation. Mr. Walker inspired the hatred of unions and their sympathizers simply because he demanded fiscal sanity at a time when his state was staring at a deficit of nearly $4 billion, with no relief in sight.
Public employees in Wisconsin—a state that prides itself on its progressive traditions—paid nothing into their pension system when Mr. Walker took office, and paid only about 6 percent of their health-care costs. Mr. Walker supported reforms that required public employees to pay about 6 percent of their pension costs and about 12 percent of their health insurance. That saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $700 million.
These are precisely the kinds of reforms that have been put in place in many states, including New York and New Jersey, over the last few years. More reforms must come, but at this point, any reform is a relief.
Public employee unions have manipulated the political process to win sweetheart deals from legislators and governors. Their benefits have little to do with equity and lots to do with pure politics. But the game is up: Even private-sector unions are getting behind groups demanding reforms. The private-sector unions recognize that their brothers and sisters are bankrupting local governments, with terrible consequences.
Mr. Walker personifies a new kind of political courage: The courage to say, “enough.” Voters rewarded that courage in his recall election. And voters elsewhere are making it clear that they, too, have had it with public employee unions. Last week voters in San Diego and San Jose approved ballot measures that cut pension benefits for municipal workers—not just future workers, but for current workers, as well. Here in New York, concessions on benefits generally apply only to future workers. But that too must change.
Police officers and firefighters in San Jose were eligible to retire after 30 years of service with pensions equivalent to 90 percent of their working salaries. Luckily New York has never negotiated such a terrible deal with its public employee unions. Nevertheless, New York City has seen its annual spending on pensions grow from $1.5 billion to $8 billion in the last decade. That has to stop.
Scott Walker is not just a local hero. He is a national leader on an issue that is about to explode in every state and in every city across the nation.