A deep and obvious fault line in Wisconsin governance has hit the state between the eyes as the recall process unfolds.
The whole premise of the recall was that Republican Gov. Scott Walker over-reached with Act 10 when he emasculated the unions by stripping them of most collective bargaining rights, requiring annual recertification of union standing, pulling the plug on union dues collection and raising contributions for pension and health care benefits.
Now, though, with the polls showing very divided public opinion on the union issues, they are no longer in the center ring of the recall campaign circus. Here are findings on the ambivalence toward Act 10 from a recent Marquette University poll:
• 73% favor its increase in contributions by public employees toward pension and health costs.
• 46% say job education is the state’s biggest political issue, while 25% say it is defeating Walker in the recall and only 12% cite the restoration of collective bargaining rights.
• 44% have favorable view of public employee unions vs. 40% unfavorable.
• 49% favor collective bargaining for public employees and 45% oppose.
• 52% favor a special session of the legislature on restoring bargaining rights vs. 39% opposed.
In short, there is not a lot of political gold to mine on either side of the union issues. Ergo, other issues are jumping to the forefront of the campaigns for governor and four state senate seats now held by Republicans.
Democrats are attacking Walker for anemic job growth, even though Democrats Barrack Obama and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett also bear responsibility for economic development. It is the right issue – for a general election, but not a recall. Else President Obama would also be up for recall.
Other issues are also getting play. The Democrats are concocting a “war on women,” and they are decrying the deep cuts to education that Walker used to balance the deep deficit handed to him by his Democratic predecessor.
Less visible in the debates are new laws passed by the Republicans on socially conservative issues, such as concealed carry of guns, voter ID, anti-abortion measures and the castle doctrine.
So, summing up, Act 10, the very issue that animated the recall and almost two million signatures gathered has been muted in the campaign. What gives?
In the process, normal governance has been upended, citizens don’t know who’s in charge and we face the possibility of a regime change mid-stream in a four-year election cycle.
Should Walker be voted out, a whole new cabinet will be drafted and installed on short notice. The state’s budget-making process, which starts this fall for 2013-2015, will start from scratch. It will be pandemonium at worst, unsettling at best.
Citizens in Wisconsin have almost no idea on what laws and tax regimens they will be operating under for the next couple of years. Would a Democratic winner raise taxes on the well-off to balance the budget if he wins? They have hinted at that option. They have talked about restoring education cuts, without saying where the money will come from.
Will business and property taxes go back up? Hard to know.
One thing is certain. The turmoil and uncertainty don’t help the business climate and therefore job creation.
Would we not be better off with a referendum solely on Act 10, under which the singular and divisive issue of union powers could be decided? That’s how Ohio and Switzerland do it. It’s relatively easy to haul a new law in front of the voters in those two jurisdictions. They decide the divisive issue of the day without disrupting the whole flow of government.
Of note, when the collective bargaining issue went to referendum in Ohio last year, the citizens rejected Act 5, the Republican bill curtailing union powers, by decisive majority of 63%-37%.
The polls in Wisconsin suggest a referendum here would have a closer outcome.
In any case, the time may have come to consider more direct democracy in Wisconsin. Our recall process is busted. We need to move toward our constitution to a referendum process so the people can directly decide the big issues.
A major benefit of direct democracy would be to reverse the impact of the obscene amounts of money poured by both sides into our elections, especially this recall election.
Wouldn’t we rather have the citizenry decide major issues than bought-and-paid-for politicians?