Douglas: Watching Wisconsin

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(HOST)  Commentator and former Vermont governor Jim Douglas, has been watching events in Wisconsin to see if they might offer any useful lessons for Vermonters.

(DOUGLAS) The nation has been riveted by the drama in Wisconsin where the Republican governor and Democrats in the legislature have been battling over budget woes and labor issues. It highlights the extraordinary times in which we live, as America slowly climbs out of the longest and deepest recession of our lifetime. States have made difficult choices as they confront a time of scarcity: some have raised taxes, borrowed or used their reserves, while most have reduced spending, often dramatically.

Vermont has fared better than most. A survey rated us the fourth least economically stressed state in the nation. Our diversified economic base, conservative debt management and fiscal responsibility have positioned us relatively well.

But, as economists have noted, the years following a recession are actually tougher, because revenues haven’t rebounded, many aren’t back to work and consumers are still unable or reluctant to spend. So we’re in for a few more difficult years.

Public employees in Vermont have made some concessions to address this crisis. We negotiated the first pay cut in history last year for state employees, and both they and our teachers have agreed to more modest retirement benefits. Frankly they’ll have to do more, but it’s a good start.

Wisconsin, like many states, has an even larger budget hole than we do. That’s what led the governor to propose reductions in compensation and changes to the labor laws.

I believe in collective bargaining. I was once a dues-paying member of a union, and in 1979, as a young legislator, I sponsored the bill to put salaries on the bargaining table for state employees. Before that we had an unsatisfying system where the legislature determined pay scales. Workers who had a friend, or even a relative, in the general assembly might get a better deal. Now everything except retirement is bargained.

But it has come at price. A survey concluded that on average, with benefits, a state employee makes around 50% more than a Vermonter in a private job.

I wouldn’t favor a return to the pre-collective bargaining days in Vermont, but the circumstances of each state are unique. The governor of Wisconsin made it quite clear during his campaign where he stood on the state’s fiscal challenges. Unions highlighted his proposals and tried to defeat him, but he won. So did Republican majorities in the legislature. Frankly, I like an elected official who does what he says during the campaign. Many don’t!

Now Senate Democrats in Wisconsin have fled the state to avoid addressing the governor’s initiatives. Democrats in Indiana have also left to avoid votes.  That’s irresponsible. I’ve been on the short end of political battles, but running away from the duties to which officials are elected sends a terrible message. I was pleased to hear leaders of the Vermont Senate from both parties declare that they would never resort to such a childish move. The answer to policies you oppose is to try to win in the next election.  Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

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