Manufacturing a Crisis

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:23 PM EST

Regardless of what you think about public sector unions, it's important to understand what's really going on in Wisconsin right now. Were they facing an unsustainable, existential budget crisis when Gov. Scott Walker took office earlier this year? No. Are they facing an unsustainable, existential budget crisis now? No. They're facing a genuine budget problem, but it's one that was made even worse by Walker's own actions:

In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit. [See update below.] As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

That's from fellow California native Ezra Klein, and this brings back painful memories. In 2003, pissed off at Gov. Gray Davis over an energy crisis that we later learned had been deliberately manufactured by Enron and wasn't his fault at all, we followed Rep. Darrell Issa down a rabbit hole and recalled Davis. He was, famously, replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned specifically on a promise to "end the crazy deficit spending." So what did he do once he was in office? He reduced the vehicle license fee, costing the state about $4 billion per year, and then made up for it by passing a $15 billion bond issue. Together, those two things produced a hole in the budget of about $7 billion per year once the bond money had been spent and annual payments started up. That hole accounted for a huge chunk of California's later fiscal crisis, and it was neither inherited from his predecessor nor was it the inevitable result of public policy. It was created.

Walker, like Schwarzenegger, has deliberately aggravated a crisis so he could take advantage of it to attack his political enemies:

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.

....If all Walker was doing was reforming public employee benefits, I'd have little problem with it....But that's not what Walker is doing. He's attacking the right to bargain collectively — which is to say, he's attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power — and using an economic crisis unions didn't cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.

This is, in a way, not unexpected. Republicans hate public sector unions. The Koch brothers and their allies, who contributed mountains of money to Walker and the Wisconsin GOP, hate public sector unions. Of course Walker and his fellow Republicans would like to dismantle public sector unions. But deliberately exacerbating a budget crisis to help them do it? Even by movement conservative standards that's outlandishly reckless and cynical. And yet, that's what's happening.

UPDATE: Actually, Walker's special session tax cuts didn't affect Wisconsin's budget for the current year. They affect the budget over the next two years. More details here.