If you were walking in the Loop today at lunchtime, you may have noticed a large group of loud protestors forming a picket line before an office building at LaSalle and Adams. Their target was public employee union boss enemy no. 1: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Walker spoke today at a luncheon event hosted by the Illinois Policy Institute entitled "The Prosperous Path." His remarks outlined how he has balanced Wisconsin's budget–nearly $4 billion in the red when he took office in 2011–without tax increases and without ordering any government employee layoffs.
You may have heard he achieved this in large part by repealing many of the privileges government employees have secured over the past decades through collective bargaining. Last March, Walker signed legislation that limited public sector collective bargaining and requires most public employees to contribute to their health insurance and pensions. It also stops automatic union dues collection from government workers' paychecks, and requires unions to obtain regular approval from government workers to continue.
Following these budget-fixing reforms, Wisconsin's unemployment rate has dipped under 7 percent, and property taxes have dropped for the first time in over a decade.
Despite these gains for Wisconsinites, public sector unions and their allies are predictably upset. They have accused Governor Walker of "union busting" and linked him tenuously to the Koch brothers, the villains du jour for progressives. In fact, black and white effigies of Charles and David Koch were present at today's protest alongside one of Walker himself.
Following a union-funded petition campaign, Walker now faces a recall election in June. He joked today that, if successful, he could be the only governor elected twice for the same term in office.
Governor Walker's comments today resembled a campaign stump speech, which makes sense. He spoke about supporting government employees who do good work, particularly teachers. He argued his policies have prevented widespread state employee layoffs and have better empowered local elected officials to administer government services.
He also explained how reforming public sector union rules can also help ensure teachers are hired, retained, and dismissed based on their value to students rather than on their seniority.
Unlike Wisconsin, Illinois faces a tough reality if it continues on its current path. Current state leadership refuses to address rising public employee benefit and pension costs, choosing instead to kick the can down the road yet again by borrowing. That's not to mention raising taxes during a weak economy.
Illinois can continue down the do-nothing path. Or we can choose to take the example of Wisconsin by reforming unsustainable systems that benefit the politically well-connected at everyone else's expense. Those who stand for citizens getting the best value out of their government should demand that Illinois government leaders face the facts and choose responsibly.