March 01, 2011

Fiscal Sanity More Likely in Oklahoma than in Union-Heavy Wisconsin

[This Marlin Oil advertorial appears in the March 3 edition of The City Sentinel.]

Unions representing public employee unions have flexed their muscle in Madison, Wisconsin, but so has the state's new governor, Scott Walker. The result is a dramatic confrontation with implications for development of public policy all over America, including Oklahoma.

Televised scenes of screaming public employees fighting a determined new governor seeking fiscal sanity have dominated much of the political debate these past few weeks. Wisconsin unions have a lot of power, and they are flexing it. But Gov. Walker has confronted bloated spending before, in Milwaukee County. Walker is keeping campaign promises to take spending problems seriously.

Walker wants to end collective bargaining rights for state employees. A national poll by Rasmussen found a plurality of Americans in Walker's corner early last week. Then, a poll conducted in the state found an exact 50 percent to 50 percent division over Walker's bill.

The state poll results were disclosed in the online news reporting of The poll itself was conducted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which sponsors the website. The Franklin Center has emerged as a new (and welcome) player in American journalism through state-based news websites, including CapitolBeatOK in Oklahoma City.

Last Saturday, CapitolBeatOK editor Patrick B. McGuigan said, in an interview with Alex Cameron of NEWS9, that similar state turmoil at the Capitol in Oklahoma City is less likely, but not inconceivable.

A few years ago, our Legislature imposed on municipalities with more than 35,000 population a mandate for collective bargaining with state employees. State Rep. Scott Martin said that mandate for forced deals with non-uniformed employee unions was odd, coming from a state government "that does not even allow collective bargaining with its own employees."

Rep. Martin said the state imposing such a requirement "is no more justified than would be a federal mandate interfering with a state’s employment policies." He is right.

Concerning Republican proposals to limit generous state public employee benefits and put new curbs on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), the Oklahoma Public Employee Association has expressed concern, and criticized some proposals. A few hundred OPEA members, as well as police and fire union representatives, were working the halls at the state Capitol last week.

So far, however, the more conservative nature of Oklahoma, including many public employees and union members, seems to be averting a Wisconsin-style devolution into shouting and personal attacks on those bringing fiscal responsibility into state governance. We'll see if that continues.

In Oklahoma City, meanwhile, the power of the police and fire unions was on display in several city council races, where they helped candidates -- some liberal, some conservative -- based solely on their views about growing the police/fire membership base with new local government hires.

No one can be certain, but McGuigan is probably right when it comes to the state Capitol. Look for tense negotiations and legislative debates, but progress toward fiscal restraint seems likely. On the other hand, it's anyone's guess what the final shakeout will be at the local level.

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