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M.D. Harmon: Maine, the Wisconsin of the East?

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Mitt Romney told Wisconsin’s once-and-future governor, Scott Walker, that his seven-point win in the recall election that state employee unions forced on the voters there on Tuesday would have an impact “far beyond Wisconsin.”

Even, one would hope, as far east as Maine.

There are parallels between the political cultures of the Badger State and the Pine Tree State. Both have historically been dominated by liberals, Maine for decades and Wisconsin (the home of the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) for generations.

Thus, both voted heavily for President Obama in the 2008 election, and were considered so firmly in the “blue” camp that they weren’t even considered likely to turn “purple,” let alone go all the way right to “red.”

Leaving shades of plumage aside, what happened after 2008 in both states is instructive. Note that Obama’s phony centrism and empty promises that he would bring spending under control quickly were superseded by out-of-control deficit spending, so that he ran up deficits in just his first two years in office that were greater than the ones George W. Bush ran up in all eight years of his two terms.

Voters not only saw that, but they noted that both states were in the fiscal doldrums, with spending levels far exceeding tax revenues. In Wisconsin, the deficit was $3.6 billion, while Maine faced smaller short-term shortfalls. But, like Wisconsin, Maine was in hock for the longer term due to unfunded public union benefit costs stretching far into the future.

So voters in both states decided the time was right to elect the long-out-of-power Republican Party to majority status in their respective legislatures, and install a fiscally conservative governor in both executive mansions.

In both states, public union benefit costs were addressed, but in Wisconsin, the unions, long accustomed to getting their own way no matter what, didn’t take it quietly. They packed the state Capitol with uproarious crowds, vandalizing property and threatening legislators not only with electoral defeat, but in many cases with actual physical harm — to the point that Republican lawmakers had to be escorted under armed guard to and from their chambers via back doors and buses.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers, in violation of any commitment to the democratic process, abandoned their seats and fled to Illinois, where they hoped to forestall the reforms the Republican majority was elected to implement. However, they ultimately failed, and revisions to the public union’s collective bargaining “rights” became law (leaving only wages, not benefits, subject to contract talks).

I’m no despiser of unions. I belonged to one every single year I was eligible for all the 41 years of my employment at the Press Herald.

But there is a huge difference between public and private unions, and Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed any public employee unions whatsoever, for the very good reason that they use their members’ dues money to support political candidates who, when in office and overseeing the unions that helped elect them, gave them higher wages and benefits almost without limit.

That’s why Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress took almost all collective bargaining rights (including bargaining over pay and benefits) away from federal workers in 1978 via the Civil Service Reform Act.

Private unions, on the other hand, face real opposition across the negotiating table, and the bargaining is honest, as long as no side’s thumbs press too heavily on the scale of federal regulation.

Not only did the Walker-led reforms lead to less costly contracts in communities across the state (including Milwaukee, the place where Walker’s opponent, Tom Barrett, was mayor), but the removal of mandatory dues deductions for public employees had an astounding effect.

As the Wall Street Journal reported late last month, “Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees … fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011.…”

Most of the decline, the paper reported, came from the ranks of state workers, where union membership “plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year.”

In dropping their union membership, workers got an automatic average pay raise of $1,200, other sources reported. It’s true that they are now paying 12.6 percent of salary for their health insurance and 5 percent pension benefits, amounts the GOP’s reforms mandated — but those levels are still less than the average private worker’s and federal employee’s contributions for those benefits.

But Walker closed the state’s $3.6 billion deficit and ended up with a surplus for the end of the fiscal year, something that likely gained him substantial voter support. The fact that unemployment there is two points below the national rate of 8.2 percent didn’t hurt, either.

Maine lawmakers, on the other hand, haven’t yet seen fit to end mandatory dues deduction for public workers, though they have reduced the state’s pension obligations and improved health care coverage costs.

Our Republicans have also refused to move toward making Maine a right-to-work state generally, choosing not to make so-called “closed shops” (where union membership is required to get a job) illegal.

One lesson of the failure of public unions and their liberal Democratic allies in Wisconsin is that Maine Republicans should not be as wary of this state’s unions as they appear to be.

Offering taxpayers a better deal is a vote-winning strategy (some exit polls showed Walker winning votes in a full third of union households, along with strong majorities elsewhere).

Indeed, the headlines that said Walker “survived” the unions’ recall effort woefully understated his achievement. He trounced his liberal opponents by a larger percentage of the vote than he did in 2010.

Democrats say that’s because they were badly outspent, but that claim ignores two facts: 1) The unions spent heavily on a Democratic primary in which the union-backed candidate lost badly and the winner, Barrett, didn’t even mention “collective bargaining rights” in his victory speech; and 2) national Democrats could have spent more, but appeared to abandon the Wisconsin effort weeks before the vote, with President Obama showing his support not with a visit, but a tweet (!) at the last possible moment.

There are a couple of other minor points to be made: First, exit polls were way off, initially showing a 50-50 vote, so other exit comments indicating a high level of support for Obama even among Walker voters can be considered problematic at best.

Second, the GOP lost control of the state Senate, where it had a 17-16 majority, when a Republican incumbent apparently lost a recall vote by less than 800 votes — the only one of four state Senate races going to the Democrats (unless a recount goes the other way).

But since the Wisconsin Senate is not in session and isn’t scheduled to return until after the November election, that victory is only symbolic.

The major point remains: Americans can no longer afford unlimited amounts of government (if we ever could — consider the mess that huge entitlements have left us).

It’s time to put the lid on, and cut spending where necessary. Government only gets money to spend because it takes it away from the people who actually earned it.

That’s why it’s of the utmost importance to be sure that it gets only what it needs to perform its absolutely necessary functions — which, as Gov. LePage has rightly noted in his recent R&D bond veto message, do not include using borrowed money to pick economic winners and losers.

Returning resources to the private, free-market sector is what will boost growth and raise employment. Recovery is in our hands, if we take the necessary actions — as Wisconsin has taken, and as we here in Maine have begun to take — to bring it to reality.

Does anyone really think that liberals will do it?

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance journalist. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

About M.D. Harmon

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

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