I addition to my work at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute I am a Ph.D. Student in Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The other day I was having a conversation with a fellow student about the differences between local government in India and the United States. Inevitably I mentioned the changes to collective bargaining in Wisconsin. My fellow student, who just recently arrived in the United States, asked me if it was a big deal. I laughed and said yes.
The conversation got me thinking. While I have been supportive of Act 10 on this blog and continue to think it has huge potential to improve the performance of local governments in Wisconsin, I agree wholeheartedly with the Governor when he says he wishes he went about passing it differently.
First, I wish the fiscal impact of Act 10 was stressed less than its potential long term impacts on public sector management. Act 10 certainly helped local governments avoid layoffs, but mostly by allowing them to offset revenue cuts with increased employee health and pension contributions. It was an action that caused financial hardship for public employees, and one that most local governments can only afford to do once. More troubling, it fed into a destructive us vs. them narrative.
Second, I wish this public employee vs. private employee narrative did not dominate the Act 10 political debate. The public and private sectors serve critical functions for our state’s economy and quality-of-life. Wisconsin’s fiscal problems were not caused by a bloated or over-privileged public sector, they were caused by several factors, including a tanking economy and longstanding irresponsible state budget practices. Perhaps this narrative was unavoidable given the politics of the situation; but still I think the destructive effects of it will linger for some time.
Third, I wish the initial attempt to pass Act 10 did not occur in such a limited time frame. Politically, passing controversial legislation as quickly as possible made sense, but it no doubt made an explosive issue even more so.
Fourth, I wish an alternative narrative stressing the importance of improving government in challenging fiscal times guided the Act 10 debate. Thankfully, I think the long-term Act 10 narrative can be changed, and the state can continue to heal. Whether it will is debatable. As the state’s revenue situation improves increased investments in school aids and shared revenues, the development of tools to encourage and reward improved public sector management and performance, and fair monitoring of local government performance can go along way to establishing a new Act 10 narrative.
Take my musings from the peanut gallery with a grain of salt, as I am neither a public employee nor a legislator. But like all Wisconsin citizens, I want a state with a strong economy and high quality-of-life. Act 10, no matter the manner in which it was passed, has the potential to make Wisconsin a better place to work and live. Whether it will depends on what legislators, and a continued divided public do next. And of course, how they go about it.