Where’s the O’Malley Recall?

Thomas A. Firey Jun 14, 2012

Watching last Tuesday night’s Wisconsin recall election results, I was struck by how differently Badger State government workers responded to Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 rewriting of their employment contracts vs. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s rewriting of Maryland state workers’ contracts that same year.

Consider that Walker and his Republican allies in the Wisconsin Legislature raised state employees’ mandatory pension fund “contribution” to 5.8 percent of their wages, whereas O’Malley and his Democratic allies in the Maryland General Assembly raised state employees’ mandatory contribution to 7 percent. Walker required Wisconsin workers to pay 12.6 percent of their annual health insurance premiums, but Maryland workers pay 20 percent and O’Malley raised retirees’ payments to 25 percent.

Walker’s initiatives were met with Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state to prevent the Legislature from reaching quorum, massive protests, a 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court election that became a proxy fight over Walker, and recall elections in 2011 and 2012. O’Malley’s efforts were met with a half-hearted rally that morphed into a love-in.

Why the difference?

It’s been claimed that the reaction to Walker was a result of his union-busting. His pension and health insurance initiatives were joined with three proposals affecting government employees’ unions:

<> Collective bargaining would be limited to state employees’ wages.

<> The state would no longer mandate that state workers pay union dues.

<> State employees’ unions would face annual recertification votes by their members.

Wisconsin union leaders said they were willing to accept the pension and health care changes, but they drew the line at the union proposals.

At first blush, it seems sensible that government workers would oppose constricting collective bargaining power. However, union leaders put far too much emphasis on easy-to-achieve deferred compensation gains while union members would prefer that negotiations focus on higher wages. Narrowing union ability to bargain solely to wages may not provide much fodder for state worker agitation, after all. Besides, if the legislatures in Madison and Annapolis both unilaterally rewrite collectively bargained pension and health insurance agreements, then is there really that much difference between Walker’s and O’Malley’s views on broad collective bargaining rights?

As for the other two union provisions, they ultimately serve to make the state employees’ unions more accountable to their members. That new accountability will surely upset union leaders, but it is long overdue and should be welcomed by members. So it’s hard to see why the Walker union provisions would anger state workers (though it’s easy to see why union chiefs would be upset).

Moreover, when one considers what I suspect will be the long-term effects of O’Malley’s 2012 school retirement benefits legislation, his initiatives appear to be more anti–government-worker than Walker’s. As I explain in some detail here, O’Malley’s 2012 initiative pushes half of the cost of teacher pensions onto Maryland’s counties, while Annapolis retains the power to set the percentage of teachers’ pay that they will receive in pension when they retire. This creates a perverse game in which the General Assembly hands out the goodies (in return for political spoils; see the 2006 General Assembly and election for an example) while the counties get stuck with half of the bill. The only way the counties can protect themselves in this game is to suppress teacher salaries, but (as I noted in the previous paragraph) teachers as a group consider their wages to be their most valued part of their compensation. Hence the perverse game: counties now have incentive to constrain the compensation that teachers care most about; Annapolis has incentive to increase the compensation that teachers care less about, but that costs taxpayers a lot of money; and teachers, students and taxpayers all get hosed as a result.

A couple of other observations in Tuesday’s aftermath:

<> The polls had barely closed in Wisconsin before the disheartened Left began blaming the failed Walker recall on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Those offering this lament included Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Congressman (and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair) Steve Israel, AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka and NEA chief Dennis Van Roekel, Guardian columnist Amy Goodman and WaPo blogger Greg Sargent.

This tells us that the Left still hasn’t read—and still doesn’t understand—the Citizens United ruling.

As I explain here, all the ruling did was allow corporations and unions to explicitly encourage voters to vote for or against a candidate for office. The ruling does not affect independent group campaign activities or individual donations. Yet when the lamenters criticized Citizens United, they were making criticisms about independent groups and individual donations. In other words, they had no real complaint about Citizens United at all, but they said and thought they did.

If anything, Citizens United helped the Left on Tuesday by allowing unions to explicitly urge voters to oust Walker and vote for his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett.

The fact that Wisconsin voters were unpersuaded and voted for Walker over Barrett by roughly the same margin as they did in pre–Citizens United 2010 indicates that Citizens United wasn’t the problem. The Left’s message was.

<> Picking up on that point, I predict the Democrats will suffer major losses this November, unless they make some major changes. The problem isn’t simply that their message isn’t resonating with the public, but that they refuse to recognize their message is their biggest problem.

In 2006, I knew the Republicans were in serious trouble when their leaders kept championing their position on the Iraq War and their claims to fiscal discipline. The problem wasn’t that voters rejected the ideas of national security and fiscal discipline, but rather that they recognized the profligacy of the George W. Bush administration and GOP Congress, and that the Iraq War was neither necessary nor successful. Republican claims to the contrary were out of touch with reality, and it’s hard to win elections when voters see you as out of touch with reality. The GOP would have been far better served to admit their policy failures and embrace policies that explicitly rectified their failures.

Today, it’s the Democrats who have the string of policy failures, from the struggling economy, to government profligacy and overreach, to continuing military interventionism abroad. Election results ranging from Scott Brown’s victory in early 2010, to the November 2010 congressional election, to Tuesday’s recall results are all clear signals that the majority of voters no longer buy the Democratic message, and Democratic responses to these defeats are sounding increasingly out of touch with reality.

Democrats may ultimately prove wiser than 2006 Republicans, admit their policy failings, and embrace different policies. But in this first week after Tuesday night, that doesn’t appear likely to happen.