Friday, February 18, 2011

This is What Democracy Looks Like

I know most of you don't live in Wisconsin, but the political conversation happening in WI right now could have a huge impact across the country and across politics for the foreseeable future. Honestly, the best summation of this situation that I've seen anywhere is this clip from Rachel Maddow:

But for those of you who don't have the patience for a 14-minute video, here's my brief summary of what's going on. Yes, I have a bias. I lived in Wisconsin for the first 22 years of my life. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And I am an unabashed liberal. I also no longer live in Wisconsin, so I can't give you any first person-insight into what's happening right now, though I am certainly hearing a lot from family and friends who've been at the capitol these past few days.

In his first six weeks as governor, Scott Walker created an extra $140 million in new spending, largely going to corporations and the wealthy.

To be clear, at the time that he took office, Wisconsin was anticipated to have a budget SURPLUS at the end of this year, but he created new expenditures without balancing them.

He then turned around and declared that the state of Wisconsin is broke, and the only way to fix it is for public employees to foot the bill. His proposed emergency budget bill would include all public union employees in the state being forced to pay 5.8% of their salary toward a pension plan (note: unlike a 401(k), employees wouldn't have the option to contribute less) and to more than double the amount that they currently pay toward health insurance. For someone earning $40,000/year, this amounts to an 8.4% paycut.

After making this proposal, he declared that because the state is broke, there is no room for negotiation on this, or any other aspect of his bill. And because Republicans hold a majority in both houses of the state legislature, he seemed sure that passage of this bill would be swift (allowing only 3 days for debate) and easy. In announcing this proposal, he also declared that the National Guard would be on standby to deal with any unrest. I thought this was the Midwest, not the Middle East?

Okay, 8.4% is a big paycut. Huge. But the unions might even be willing to accept that, were it not for the rest of his proposal. You see, the rest of the proposal would demolish every right that unions have fought for over the past century. Under his plan, unions would lose ALL of their collective bargaining rights, with the exception of base salary. Issues of benefits, working conditions, overtime, etc. would no longer be on the table. And raises beyond the consumer price index would require a referendum, and we can all imagine how that's going to go. And none of this impacts the current budget. This is union-busting, pure and simple. Scott Walker is trying to make real a Republican wet dream to wipe out the major organizational base of their opponent.

Oh, but I lied up above. I said it would impact all public employees, but that's not true. You see, state troopers, police officers, and firefighters would be exempt from these changes. Why, because they're more important than teachers, nurses, prison guards, and other state employees? No, because the Milwaukee firefighters and police unions, along with the troopers' union, were the only unions in WI to support Walker in the gubernatorial election. Yes, it's just that blatant.

Needless to say, unions are irate. Over the past week, tens of thousands of people have been gathering at the capitol each day to protest and to make their voices heard during committee hearings. But the Republicans have continued to claim that there is no room for negotiation and therefore have largely refused to negotiate the terms of this bill. So yesterday, the Senate Democrats made a bold move: they left the state.

The Wisconsin State Senate has 33 seats, of which 19 are currently held by Republicans and 14 are held by Democrats. Senate rules require that a quorum of at least 20 Senators be present in order for a vote to occur. Republicans had repeatedly refused to negotiate the bill, knowing that they had the votes in the bag. So the Democrates left. And they didn't just leave the capitol, or the city--they left the state and are now beyond the reach of the State Troopers, who were otherwise being sent out to find them. The Democrats' hope is that by delaying the vote, Republicans will have to come back with a better bill; meanwhile, more people will get a chance to have their voices heard.

Was this move smart? I don't know. It's certainly not going to win any friends from moderates, and it's giving the right all sorts of ammunition. But I'm not sure the Dems had much choice--this seemed to be the only way they could have any say at all in this debate. And I will say this--it was brave. This was not a move for the squeamish. There was no room for waffling. It was all or nothing--one Senator caving to pressure means the vote can go on. This is solidarity. For realz.

And lest you think that only the Democrats are pulling unusual and perhaps less-than-honorable tactics, the State Assembly was scheduled to convene at 5:00 tonight to discuss the bill. But Assembly Republicans started the meeting early and began a voice vote before Democrats could reach the floor. This meant that the bill could no longer be changed and no new amendments could be introduced. After much, much argument, the Republicans finally relented and reversed the decision. They'll reconvene on Tuesday.


If you made it through all of that, congratulations. But here's what I couldn't find a way to say in all of that synopsis: I AM ANGRY. So, so angry about all of this. And frustrated. And distraught. This is my home. This bill affects family members, friends, and the communities in which I grew up and went to college. If this passes, it will have a huge lasting impact on the state of Wisconsin. And that is my immediate concern. This is my home. These are my people. And I really, really wish that I could be in Madison right now, raising my voice with thousands of other people who care deeply about the future of the state.

Wisconsin has a long, proud progressive heritage that goes beyond the Republican/Democrat divide. But the current government took its victory as a mandate to implement whatever changes they wanted. And they thought we wouldn't fight back. But we are proud, and we are scrappy. Those of you on the coasts may disdain Wisconsin as part of "flyover territory," but I betcha don't know that we have one of the best educational systems in the country, we were the first state to allow public workers to unionize, and we were the first state to outlaw discrimination against gays. And I don't know what the end result is going to be in all of this, but I do know this: Wisconsin progressives are a powerful force, and even if you knock us down, we will get back up over, and over, and over again. This fight is far from over. Bring it, Tea Party.

Oh, and by the way, to all of the WI legislators in favor of this bill: please go visit all your K-12 teachers and thank them for helping you get the education to get to this point in your career. And then explain to them why you want to cut their pay and steal their voice. But don't be surprised if you don't get a warm and fuzzy welcome.

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