Moving Wisconsin Forward

At a time when the interest in politics and budgets was at a fever pitch and the weakening of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s standing with the public provided an opening to new solutions, many Wisconsin labor leaders agreed with Walker that public employees should shoulder more of the burden to balance the state budget.

As Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) President Mary Bell put it, the impasse was “not about increased health and benefit contributions, or paying our fair share. We have agreed to the fiscal demands included in the bill” (weac.org, Feb. 25, 2011, Bell ‘deeply disappointed’ in Assembly).

Public school teachers speaking at rallies followed Bell’s lead, announcing that they were willing to make concessions to balance the budget. At rallies we attended in the past three weeks we heard from other union officials that it’s not about the money, it’s about collective bargaining. Democratic politicians speaking out on behalf of workers’ collective bargaining rights often noted our willingness to accept cuts.

People wondered why the governor wouldn’t negotiate. After all, they said, we’re willing to give up some money. One slogan heard at rallies was, “It’s not about the pay; it’s about the say.” Yet many Wisconsin families are going to be hit hard by these concessions, and cuts in take home pay will lead to a decrease in economic activity and job loss. The pay and say are inextricably linked. For some proponents of the budget repair bill, reducing salaries was the primary objective. Madison Capitol Times editor Paul Fanlund noted, in discussing the legislative focus of the business backers of Walker: “For them, it is always–and only–about the money.” (Madison Capitol Times, Feb. 23-March 1).

Wisconsin teachers have already been contributing their fair share for nearly two decades by having their salaries capped under the Qualified Economic Offer (begun in 1993 under Gov. Tommy Thompson). Once 15th in the nation, teacher pay has fallen to 23rd (weac.org, “Wisconsin teacher pay drops to lowest level in 50 years,” 2/16/11).

By agreeing to accept pay cuts, the labor movement was in agreement with Governor Walker’s framing of the issue when he said, “We’re broke. We don’t have the money.” (February 21, 2011 press conference).

Wisconsin’s teachers contribute their salaries in deferred compensation packages to their own pensions. This is not a set of separately paid taxpayer monies, this is the deal Wisconsin teachers have agreed to in return for making less than market value wages for the work of educating Wisconsin’s children. This fiscal reality never took hold in the public mind. By dominating the framing of the budget issue Walker convinced a majority of the public that public sector employees’ “fully paid” pensions were responsible, in part, for the budget woes. Anxious about their current economic situations, many Wisconsinites resent public sector employees they have been misled into believing don’t pay for their pensions. The headline of one recent letter to the editor captured this emotion: “Public sector should feel the pain too”. (Wisconsin State Journal, March 3, 2011)

Walker’s scapegoating of public employees makes it harder for people to see the real causes of budget problems–economic and political decisions over which they had no voice or choice. Teachers aren’t responsible for the housing bubble and the Wall Street melt down. Teachers didn’t send the thousands of manufacturing jobs out of the state under the so-called free trade agreements. Teachers didn’t exempt many of the ever-growing service economy businesses from collecting sales tax. Teachers didn’t set up the for-profit health insurance system that is overburdening schools and businesses. Teachers didn’t enact a corporate tax system in Wisconsin that collects about $1.3 billion less per year than the national average (Marc Levine, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Feb. 26, 2011).

While recent polls show the public supports Walker’s framing on the public worker pension issue, there is also polling data that indicates the public is open to other funding options on the budget. Now is the time, while so many are paying attention, to present a different narrative about how to pay for excellent schools. Wisconsin’s great schools programs are provided by caring educators who deserve decent salaries and benefits. Excellent schools are a vital necessity for this state. It benefits everyone when each child is educated to the fullest. Since it serves our common interest all should share in supporting the funding necessary to support the common good.

Wisconsin schools have been suffering from inadequate funding for more than a decade. Increasing class sizes, staff lay-offs and program cut backs are harming our ability to adequately meet the educational needs of all children.

Governor Walker’s “sharing the pain” education budget proposal, has been condemned by Mary Bell as the “step by step destruction of public schools” (weac.org, “Walker budget is wrong for Wisconsin”, March 1, 2011). How about changing the frame to one of “shared responsibility”?

An idea such as a state-wide increase in the revenue tax on sales is an example of shared responsibility. Increasing the sales tax one cent would raise $850 million per year according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The Wisconsin sales tax, currently at 5%, hasn’t been raised since 1981 and is the lowest in the region. This school funding mechanism, promoted by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (apennyforkids.org), includes sales tax exemptions on food, medicine, and housing. The plan sets aside 20% to offset the burden for low income residents. Fully 50% of Wisconsin residents favor raising the state income tax one penny (Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll cited on weac.org, March 8, 2011).

Finally, shared responsibility is asking the wealthiest among us, who have benefited from an economy oriented around privilege and undemocratic decision-making, to pay more in taxes. 72 % of Wisconsin residents favor raising the income tax on those making more than $150,000 (WPRI poll, weac.org, March 8, 2011).Shared responsibility is also about corporations paying their fair share, not underpaying compared to the national average. If we all step “Forward” together, we can all share in the burden and blessing of ensuring that services vital to Wisconsin’s growth and prosperity are safeguarded for today’s children and our future generations. Make no mistake, allowing cuts to education and social programs such as those proposed will only step our once great state “Backward” into an abyss from which it will be difficult to return.

Beth Hutchinson is a former public school music teacher who has taught in Arkansas, Texas, Wyoming and Alaska. She is now a teacher educator in Wisconsin.

Brian LeCloux has taught high school social studies for 16 years and is a WEAC member. Beth and Brian are married and reside in Sun Prairie, Wisc.


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