Why is everyone’s hair on fire about Scott Walker’s announcement that he wants state employees to contribute more to their pensions and health care premiums?  Were they not listening to him during 2010?

Slashing union negotiating powers and demanding concessions from state workers was Walker’s number two issue during the gubernatorial campaign; opening Wisconsin for business was number one. And Walker would probably say getting the state budget back in the black and eliminating the structural deficit is essential to make the state attractive to businesses and jobs.

In case you haven’t heard, Walker wants the Legislature to pass a budget repair bill for the remainder of the fiscal year, requiring most unionized state employees to make a 5.8  percent contribution to their pension fund and 12.6 percent towards their health insurance premiums. In addition, Walker is seeking to limit the union’s collective bargaining power to only negotiations on wages, taking healthcare, pensions, pay scales, work rules and seniority.

Currently, state employees contribute 6 percent toward their heath premium and little or nothing to their pension plan. According to previous state budgets, it costs taxpayers over $1 billion in employee health benefits.  The administration claims that by implementing these proposed employee contributions the state will realize an estimated savings of $30 million between April 1st and June 30th, which marks the end of the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

The governor said these types of measures are needed to avoid laying off 1,500 state employees and keeping 194,000 children on Medicaid programs before the fiscal year ends. He added that the state is not in the position to negotiate with the unions on contracts that have been unsettled since 2009, since it has nothing to offer.

“We have a fiscal and economic crisis in this state. We can no longer kick the can down the road on this,” he said. “We are broke, we’ve been broke for years and it’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth. We don’t have anything to offer.” 

And the public seems to agree with Walker’s stance. In a poll conducted by WPRI last November, 80% of respondents said they believed government employees should contribute to their own pensions. (In the poll, 33% of respondents considered themselves Democrats, while only 23% called themselves Republicans.)

But union leaders and employees, Democrat legislators and even one Republican said this move may be too much.

Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) was surprised Walker went after the unions so aggressively.

“It’s not what I thought he was going to do,” Olsen said, adding he didn’t know what other Republicans felt about the repair bill.

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees union and former Assembly person Spencer Black (D-Madison) have both said the measures are equivalent to “slavery.”

Beil and Black’s rhetoric is similar to yelling “Nazi” in a political debate; it stops the discussion cold and lessens the real inequities suffered by victims. I don’t think Beil having to pony up $28,960 toward his pension and health benefits from his annual state salary of $162,000 is slavery, indentured servitude, or even hard labor. I don’t think his argument of fiscal hardship will fly with the single African-American mother who is working for $7.25 at McDonald’s and supporting a kid or two.

Plus, the slaves had no choice but to work for the master. State employees, including Beil, are more than free to peddle their talents in the private industry pool like the rest of us; I don’t recall any chains on the legs of DMV workers at the Mill Road DOT Station when my daughter received her driver’s license last year.

Not that Walker got this all right. He is exempting state troopers, police and fire personnel from his bill. He says it’s because he wants to maintain the high standards of public safety across the state and he doesn’t want to push these workers towards a work stoppage.  However, the appearance of impropriety could be rearing its ugly head here.  It just so happens that police and fire unions endorsed Walker during  the election cycle, and to some, this could be seen as repayment for that support.

It’s probably nothing, but as a former elected official I am always aware of the public perception that actions can speak louder than words.

However, the bigger issue is why are you surprised?  This is exactly what Walker said he was going to do and now he’s doing it. Did you really think he wouldn’t keep his word?