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Associated Press/Photo by Andy Manis

Battle of the bulges

Politics | Facing serious short-term budget deficits and enormous long-term liabilities, aggressive and controversial governors are seeking to uproot the way governments do business

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

The folks in Madison, Wis., still know how to throw a humdinger of a political demonstration. Forty-plus years after students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other radicals set the standard for anti-establishment protests during the Vietnam era, the city nicknamed "the Berkeley of the Midwest" once again is the site of tens of thousands of angry protesters.

But it's more than just a little ironic that this time the demonstrators in Madison are protesting in support of the status quo, not against it.

They began Feb. 12 with a small demonstration outside the home of rookie Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who had just announced a plan to make teachers and most other unionized state workers contribute for the first time to their pensions and to increase their contributions to their health coverage. By Walker's reckoning those free or nearly free benefits simply cost too much for a state facing a budget shortfall this year of $137 million, and a $3.6 billion budget gap by 2013.

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After the demonstrations moved to the state capitol and the ranks of demonstrators swelled into the tens of thousands, the media descended on Madison with their satellite trucks and front-line correspondents. Initially the teachers welcomed the attention. But they soon recognized that most residents of the Badger State-like most Americans-were outraged to learn what a sweet deal they and other public employee union members had. So the teachers shifted gears and agreed to Walker's demands on pension and healthcare contributions.

But they did not back off their opposition to Walker's plan to truncate their collective bargaining power and get the state out of the business of collecting union dues via paycheck deduction. That threatens to disrupt the symbiotic relationship between public employee unions (who are among the largest donors in U.S. politics, see sidebar) and the Democratic lawmakers who overwhelmingly are the largest beneficiaries of union political contributions. But the governor says it's necessary in order to achieve the vision of a smaller, more efficient government that taxes its people less. "Our state cannot grow if our people are weighed down paying for a larger and larger government," Walker said on March 1 when introducing a budget that he says would reduce Wisconsin's "structural" deficit by 90 percent. Despite state Senate Democrats fleeing the state for three weeks to deny the body a quorum, Walker and Senate Republicans were able pass an amended version of the reform plan that greatly reduces most state employees' collective bargaining rights on March 9 when they bypassed the need for a quorum by stripping the fiscal provisions from the bill. The vote ratcheted up the intensity of the already angry protesters in Madison.

Political conservatives, libertarians, and especially Tea Partiers are cheering Walker and governors in other states who also seek to rein in state spending and the power of government employee unions. They have longed for the day when government-federal, state, and local-is less intrusive and less costly. But liberals and unionists adamantly are opposed to any diminution of government's power. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, says governors are trying to "silence workers, lower their wages, cut their benefits and increase the likelihood that they will suffer injuries and fatalities at work. It's happening at breakneck pace and too little attention is being paid."

Union hyperbole? Maybe. But when the issue is understood that way, it's easy to see why the battle in Wisconsin has become such a big deal across the rest of America. Big Labor and its political allies are gearing up to preserve Labor's out-sized financial and philosophical influence and its powerful position in America's politics and economics. Meanwhile, governors and legislators-mostly Republicans but with some Democratic governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo-faced with big short-term revenue shortfalls and monumental long-term budgeting challenges, are seizing on Americans' growing concern over government's unbridled spending and its seemingly limitless reach into their personal, financial, and business lives.

No state has seen demonstrations on the scale of those in Wisconsin. But budget-cutting governors in Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Michigan, New Jersey, California, New York, Iowa, Oklahoma, and even Texas are facing vocal opposition from public employee unions and their supporters over the governors' plans for resolving the deepest financial crises to hit the states since at least the Great Depression. And make no mistake about it, the state budget problems are widespread, and they are big: It's easier to name the states that aren't expecting big tax receipt shortfalls this year (Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Wyoming) than it is to list the 45 that are.

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