Will Pa. and N.J. governors follow Wisconsin’s lead?

The bitter labor fight in Wisconsin is like the fight over legalized abortion in that both sides think they benefit from keeping the fight going.

In the case of abortion, both sides use the never-ending controversy to raise money and keep their supporters mobilized and organized. Similarly in Wisconsin’s battle over efforts to restrict civil servant benefits and rights, both organized labor and the political right see the fight as an organizing tool and a rallying point for their supporters.

As I’ve noted in an earlier blog, the financial crisis in Wisconsin is shared with many other states and localities. In good financial times, organized labor negotiated generous health and retirement benefits on behalf of civil servants, including defined-benefit retirement plans that insulate retirees from financial risk. Although most private sector employers and the federal government have switched to defined-contribution plans that force workers to assume market risk and limit employer costs, the political clout of unions representing state civil servants has in many states kept benefit levels as originally negotiated.

The “Great Recession” has simultaneously increased state expenditures, reduced state revenues, and destroyed the financial assumptions on which defined-benefits had been calculated. The new governors and state legislators elected in the Republican surge of 2010 (and 2009), now confront enormous budget deficits aggravated by the expiration of federal stimulus spending.

In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie has become the darling of the political right for challenging the benefits and rights of civil servants including school teachers. In his recent budget address he proclaimed that other states including Wisconsin are simply following New Jersey’s lead in trying to reduce those benefits and rights. But he has distinguished himself from Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker by noting his own commitment to “responsible collective bargaining” over civil servant health and retirement benefits he views as unsustainable.

Christie is playing “good cop” to the Wisconsin governor’s “bad cop”, but the goal is the same, a substantial reduction in the benefits and rights of civil servants. If his demands are resisted in collective bargaining with labor unions, Christie can claim the unions are irresponsible.

What really distinguishes New Jersey from Wisconsin is that while in Wisconsin Republicans now control both houses of the state legislature and are supportive of the Republican governor, in New Jersey Democrats still control both houses of the state legislature. This compels Governor Christie to be a negotiator, whether he wants to or not.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Governor Tom Corbett campaigned as a front-runner, making broad promises to balance a budget in deficit while reducing taxes, reduce the size of government, and reduce pension benefits of public employees. Contracts for most state workers expire this June. To balance the budget without raising taxes, Governor Corbett will have to propose cuts in public employee benefits comparable to those proposed in New Jersey and Wisconsin.

But here’s what makes Pennsylvania different from those two states: Republicans hold comfortable majorities in both houses of the state legislature, and can be expected to support reform proposals from the Republican governor. But here’s an important difference between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the governor’s reform proposals have been stalled in the state senate because minority Democrats have fled the state to prevent a quorum for a vote they are sure to lose: In the Pennsylvania legislature there is no comparable requirement for a quorum which would enable minority Democrats to prevent a vote on legislation they oppose.

Stay tuned!

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