Fascinating results from the bitter Wisconsin recall election in which Republican Governor Scott Walker defeated the effort by Democrats and organized labor to remove him from the office to which he was elected in 2010.
In 2010, Scott Walker was elected governor over his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett by a margin of 5.77%. Enmity against Governor Walker was triggered by his 2011 budget repair bill which increased contributions of government employees to their pensions and health care plans, ended most collective bargaining rights for government workers, and ended the automatic deduction of union dues from the paychecks of government workers.
In this week’s recall election, Governor Walker increased his margin of victory over the same opponent to 6.9%. So all the controversy over the budget repair bill actually increased Governor Walker’s popularity, with a larger voter turnout for the recall election than in 2010.
Exit polls conducted for and published by the New York Times reported that Wisconsin’s recall voters still favored President Obama over challenger Mitt Romney by 51% to 44%. But of the 51% favoring President Obama, fully 18% reported voting for Governor Walker. Thus about 9% of recall voters were Obama supporters who voted to retain Scott Walker, and this exceeded his overall margin of victory in the recall election.
Put another way, it appears that Governor Walker was able to win the recall election only because of significant support he received from Obama supporters. What does that tell us?
I think it tells us that a significant number of Obama supporters share the concern of Republican voters over the broken political process by which elected officials trade future underfunded pension and health care benefits in exchange for votes and political support from unions representing government employees.
Most elected officials just want to get re-elected, and don’t worry about future budget problems that will have to be faced by future elected officials because of the insufficiently funded pension and health care promises that were made in exchange for union votes and support.
But the ticking time bomb of underfunded pension and health care obligations for government retirees eventually goes off when the economy contracts, overall government revenues decline, the needs of the poor and unemployed increase, both health care expenses and life expectancies exceed projections, and the return on investments misses projected targets. And when the crisis hits, critics point out that the benefits received by government retirees greatly exceed the benefits received by the private sector taxpayers who are paying for them.
Most private sector workers if they have retirement plans at all, now have defined contribution plans, where they receive in benefits only what they and their employers have set aside for them, which is subject to market risk. In contrast, most state and local government employees can qualify for defined benefit plans by which they are entitled to stated future benefits without limit and regardless of market fluctuation. And private sector workers typically make larger contributions to their health care coverage than unionized government workers.
The same budget crisis felt in Wisconsin because of rising health care and pension benefits is being felt in other states and local governments all across America, including Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia. Elected officials in most of those jurisdictions will try to kick the problem down the road, to be addressed only after they are out of office.
But perhaps Governor Walker’s recall victory in Wisconsin will encourage some of them to take the political risk of trying to limit future government obligations now.
Coincidentally, on the same day that Wisconsin voters decided to stick with the governor who has taken that risk, voters in the California cities of San Jose and San Diego approved by large margins ballot initiatives opposed by employee unions to reduce retirement benefits for city workers. The mayors of both cities described the reductions in city employee pensions as essential.