In the bitter aftermath of the failed recall, there will be many blaming a vast right-wing conspiracy, out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, and Gov. Scott Walker's polarizing, take-no-prisoners style. But Democrats and unions might want to take a look in the mirror. For it was their willingness to abuse government benefits - with sweetheart deals benefiting only a minority of workers - that led directly to defeat.
The most outrageous was the Milwaukee County pension scandal: County Executive F. Thomas Ament and the board of supervisors passed a plan that would have given Ament a $2 million lump sum pension had he served until 2008 as he planned. Countless county veterans left with payouts of $300,000 to $1 million, and this was in addition to a monthly pension they will draw for life. The plan's obscene costs must be paid by local property taxpayers, few of whom will ever enjoy such a lucrative retirement.
Much like Milwaukee County's politicians, state officials couldn't resist grabbing more government benefits during the booming 1990s, funded with what amounted to paper profits in the state pension fund that have since disappeared. A 1999 law championed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and union leaders and passed by a bipartisan Legislature sweetened an already generous state pension plan, at a long-term cost of $5.5 billion.
As with the county plan, Thompson's was skewed to deliver the big benefits to the insiders, the employees with the biggest salaries and longest tenure. The lifetime value of Thompson's already generous pension, for instance, grew by $111,000. Numerous UW officials gained a $7,000 to $12,000 sweetener in their annual retirement payment.
Then there was the "second" pension plan passed in 1998 by the Milwaukee school board, at a time when it was dominated by union sympathizers. Milwaukee school employees were already covered by the state pension plan, but this provided a second plan that increased the lifetime retirement payment for some teachers (again, a privileged group of veterans) by as much as 400%. Add to that the lifetime health insurance Milwaukee teachers had successfully bargained for, and the impact for taxpayers was huge.
Generous union contracts enabled 10 state corrections workers to collect $59,000 to $103,000 in annual overtime payments, all in addition to their regular pay. Ditto for the seven Madison bus drivers who each earned more than $100,000 annually, as a result of overtime payments of $40,000-$109,000 a year. Often, this kind of overtime went to tenured veterans who thereby jacked up their lifetime pension, which is based on the final average years of salary - another insider's trick.
Typically, these outrageous pay and benefits packages were quietly passed with no actuarial estimate of their long-term costs - or the impact on taxpayers. In the case of pension or health insurance upgrades, the details were so complicated that they bored the media, who barely understood much less reported them. Indeed, a politician like Thompson could claim to be holding the line on employee wages, which were more easily understood, while approving a stealthy increase in benefits.
And yes, the support for these sweeteners was often bipartisan, winning the approval of Democratic and Republican legislators, liberal and conservative Milwaukee County supervisors. And why not? The dirty secret was that the benefits went to all government workers, including legislators and county supervisors, the governor and his cabinet members. The pension sweetener passed under Thompson was eventually appealed to the state Supreme Court, whose members approved a plan that benefited each of them personally by an average of about $4,000 in additional pension payments per year (though liberals Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley dissented).
This kind of insider deal-making sent a message that the game was fixed to benefit unions and politicians, and the bill for all this fun would be charged to the little people. The taxpayers were treated like patsies by both parties.
But it was a Republican, Scott Walker, who decided to draw a line in the sand, and suddenly turned this into a partisan battle. Initially, polls suggested he had gone too far: Voters supported requiring government workers to contribute more to benefits, but balked at killing collective bargaining rights.
Had Tom Barrett - or any Democrat - offered an alternative, some approach that would eliminate the abuse of public benefits without crushing unions, while protecting the many public workers who are not overpaid, this could have carried the day against Walker. But as it became clear the Democrats' only solution was to restore all public worker rights, more voters moved to embrace what once seemed a quite revolutionary position. Exit polls of recall voters showed 52% now approve of Walker's position on collective bargaining.
The voters had spoken: They were no longer willing to be patsies.
Former Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy is now editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.