Walker recall vote could swing national pension policy

Thursday , May 10, 2012 - 2:24 PM

Jay Ambrose

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin may not have done every single thing right in his 16 months in office, but he did one thing right, powerfully right. He stood up to public employee unions turning many states and localities into places with little chance for good days ahead, and for that reason he is facing a recall election. It is also for that reason he should win.

This tipping-point contest comes up June 5 and pits him against the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett. It's huge for this nation because it will announce one of two things:

If Walker wins, the outcome will say to officials in other states that they, too, can possibly continue the fight for fiscal sanity and get away with it.

If Walker loses, the result will indicate to some that they had better keep bowing to the clout of unions that can deliver major voting blocs, contribute millions to campaigns, and, if you oppose them, come at you with unruly rallies before they come at you with recall elections.

Remember the rally in Madison when scary, threatening, yelling protesters pursued a Wisconsin state senator around the state capitol? I think it's an image to keep in mind as symbolic of how these outfits operate, although we should not forget the senseless rationale, either.

The not-so-calm, not-so-rational, not-so-respectable Wisconsin demonstrators told us that the Republican plan to restrict collective bargaining with government was an abridgment of a basic right. That's a piece of silliness echoed by scores of journalists who should have known, among other facts, that the federal government restricts collective bargaining with its unions more than Walker wanted in his state, and with no principled obligation to do otherwise.

The already abridged rights are those of the citizenry to get responsible representation. They have not received any such thing from too many elected officials who made pension promises that could never be fulfilled, leading instead to the sort of disaster we are now seeing in Stockton, Calif. Officials there gave unions sweetheart deals along with other acts of fiscal recklessness. The city ran out of money, the police force had to be reduced for lack of funds -- and murders went up.

The officials who played pension games all over the nation may have figured they themselves would be retired before crisis days arrived. They obviously did not figure on a financial collapse and major recession coming along when they did, but that hardly lets them off the hook. They were like the Wall Street brokers who put other people's money carelessly at risk before the housing bubble burst.

Some people would have you believe there is nothing to fret about because 41 states have taken action to effect such reforms as slowing the growth of public pension obligations. It is also said pension investments will pay off dramatically as the stock market recuperates. Check out an expert such as Girard Miller of the highly respected magazine, Governing, and you learn it is not so easy.

We must deal with already existing pension obligations that far exceed anticipated revenues, he says. As for stock markets being the answer, he tells us that would require a consistent, never-failing 14 percent return on investment for the next decade to make up the $2.5 trillion in unfunded liabilities for pensions and medical benefits promised to retired employees.

None of this means we should now aim to punish public employees counting on reasonable pensions, but the worst retirement danger for these Americans could be pension fund defaults, it has been pointed out. There has got to be some give, and it would help if there were a victory in Wisconsin letting elected officials elsewhere know they can battle for an American future that works and get away with it.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.

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