The Corner

Wisconsin’s Reforms Are Already Working

Earlier this week, the Chicago Bears’ all-pro defensive end Julius Peppers was asked whether his eight quarterback sacks last year were a disappointment. With a rejoinder worthy of Yogi Berra, Peppers answered, “I don’t like to put a number on stats.”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s critics are also loath to put numbers on stats — numbers that show his public-sector collective-bargaining reforms are benefiting the state. Wisconsin is replete with examples of cities and school districts that are reforming their finances to finally balance their books — and doing it without significant cuts to services.

Recently, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that under Walker’s plan to require greater health-care and pension contributions from government employees, the City of Milwaukee actually comes out $11 million ahead — contravening Mayor Tom Barrett’s March prediction that Walker’s budget “just makes our structural deficit explode.” Barrett, who lost to Walker in the 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial election, refuses to give the governor any credit for helping him balance his city’s books, instead complaining that Walker’s plan to curb collective bargaining went too far.

Yet many governments are putting the collective-bargaining rollback to good use. In suburban Milwaukee, the Brown Deer school district is implementing a plan to allow performance pay for its best teachers. “No Wisconsin public-school district has ever had the opportunity in any of our lifetimes to even think about these things,” said Brown Deer Public Schools finance director Emily Koczela in an interview with a local television station. “We’re looking at understanding what effective teaching is, how to measure it in the children’s point of view, and how to reward teachers that consistently turn in a performance that’s better than the norm,” added Koczela.

In Appleton, the collective-bargaining reforms allowed the school district there to save $3 million by bidding for health care on the open market. Previously, the district had been required to purchase health insurance from WEA Trust, which is affiliated with the state’s largest teachers’ union. When the Appleton School District put their health-insurance contract up for bid, WEA Trust magically lowered their rates, saying they would match any competitor’s price — a sign they had been fleecing local taxpayers for years.

Other governments are implementing similar reforms. In Manitowoc, County Executive Bob Ziegelbauer altered overtime procedures for county employees, saving taxpayers $100,000. After dealing with a $400,000 deficit last year, the Kaukauna School District expects to see a $1.5 million surplus once they implement performance pay and benefit reforms.

In February, if you had told a public-school teacher that Walker’s reforms were actually a job-retention program, they would have looked at you as if you’d just tried to stuff a live lobster down your pants. But all over the state, teacher jobs are being spared due to the increased benefit requirements in Walker’s plan. The Wauwatosa School District, facing a $6.5 million shortfall, anticipated needing to cut 100 teacher jobs — yet they were able to spare those teachers through shared sacrifice. “When students come to school in the fall, they’re going to see the same things, have the same teachers, and they’re going to see new things as well,” said Wauwatosa School District board member Phil Kroner upon passage of next year’s district budget.

Of course, Walker’s critics would rather not put a number on these statistics. During their recent failed attempt to take over control of the Wisconsin state senate through recall elections, Democrats and their union allies completely scrapped any mention of collective bargaining in their television ads. Mentioning the new union law would mean alerting voters to the plan’s successes. Instead, unions hoped voters would gobble up myriad scandalous ephemera. It didn’t work — Republicans won four seats, Democrats two, leaving the state senate in GOP hands.

In the end, statistics do matter. And in a year when Wisconsin is leading the nation in government innovation, it also makes sense that the state is home to the one statistic that should matter to Julius Peppers: Green Bay boasts one defending Super Bowl trophy.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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