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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Dane County Board reacted rashly to the Act 10 judgment
Rushing to reward unions

Suppose you learn that your blood pressure is 140 over 90, or just on the verge of being too high. Rather than prescribe medicine immediately, your doctor asks you to buy a home blood-pressure monitor and test yourself a few times to see if things are improving. You do it, but discover that your blood pressure is getting worse over time, until one day when the test comes back at 120 over 80. Naturally, you conclude that you're home free, and use the opportunity to visit the Hungry Man Buffet and pack as much cholesterol into your arteries as you possibly can.

This, metaphorically speaking, is what the Dane County Board of Supervisors did on Sept. 20, when it voted to extend its union contracts through 2015. This action was motivated by a Sept. 14 ruling by Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas that invalidated several provisions of Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law, Act 10. The ruling left Act 10 intact for state employees but eliminated some of its restrictions on collective bargaining for local governments and school boards - at least for now. The state has appealed the decision, and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked Judge Colas to stay his ruling.

But, as Rahm Emmanuel likes to say, progressives never let a good crisis go to waste. In the words of County Board Chairman Scott McDonell right before the vote, "We have a window here, and we're going to take advantage of it."

This rash deed was expressly contrary to doctor's orders. The Wisconsin Counties Association advised county officials on the implications of Judge Colas' decision in a Sept. 18 memo from its legal counsel. The memo stated that "with all matters this significant, counties need to take a considered and measured approach in responding to this decision. Decisions to engage in collective bargaining with general municipal employees...should be made only after a county has fully evaluated the legal and financial implications. It is not legally accurate or fiscally possible to simply conclude that the decision mandates a return to pre-Act 10 status." The memo concludes with the warning that "there is simply too much at stake, and too much to lose, for public sector leaders to rush to judgment."

Not in Dane County. Board supervisors received a copy of this memo on the morning of Sept. 19, and by the end of the day their "considered and measured" judgment was to schedule a vote the following day to ram through contract extensions. When a window of opportunity opens for rewarding unions, the County Board can move with impressive alacrity.

As irresponsible as the County Board's actions were, the media reporting was arguably worse. The lead in both newspaper and television accounts was that the new contracts save taxpayers as much as $5 million. This is how progressives were spinning the vote, but our savvy, worldly-wise press corps should have smelled a rat. After all, everyone knows that Act 10 restricts the ability to raise wages and benefits for public-sector unions in Wisconsin, but it doesn't stop anyone from finding or enacting cost savings. If the unions and the board were champing at the bit to save taxpayers money, they didn't need to wait for Judge Colas to (temporarily) relax the strictures of Act 10.

In fact, the "savings" trumpeted by progressive board members are illusory. The alleged source of these savings is a provision for employees to take up to five days of voluntary, unpaid leave. There is no guarantee that this proviso will ever be exercised, but even if it is, employees receive a one-for-one credit in their balance of personal time for each hour of unpaid leave they accept. This stipulation will, at best, transfer costs from the present into the future (or, more precisely, enable current employment costs to be transformed into future liabilities). This is par for the course for the Dane County Board, which has for years relied on accounting gimmicks and other shenanigans to kick the can down the road and dramatically increase the county's debt and financial obligations.

Meanwhile, the contract extension assures that funds continue to flow from local taxpayers into union coffers through 2015. This occurs via the miracle of mandatory deductions of union dues from the paychecks of unionized county employees. Compulsory deduction of union dues was abolished by Act 10, and keeping the spigot open has always been the public-sector unions' highest priority.

I'm a mere economist, writing a semi-regular Isthmus column, but if I can find this stuff out, why can't professional journalists who are supposed to do this on their day job? You would think they'd be channeling their inner Woodward and Bernstein to get to the bottom of a story where the official explanation doesn't add up, not languidly and credulously reporting the party line. This reckless episode not only reflects badly on our county government, but also on America's increasingly inept and embarrassing Fourth Estate.

Larry Kaufmann is an economic consultant based in Madison.

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