Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is surely a busy man these days, standing his anti-union ground as his state government veers toward breakdown. But still, has he had no time to take notice of what’s been happening in the Middle East?
Perhaps he had been paying attention to Cairo, where police and military abandoned their allegiance to Hosni Mubarak, removing the authoritarian’s last chance of hanging onto power. That might explain why Walker spared police and firefighter unions from his demand that public employees give up most of their collective bargaining rights, effectively making the existence of those unions irrelevant. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should public unions keep collective bargaining rights?]
But the power grab Walker is seeking in his budget goes well beyond his effort to transform himself from state employer to ruler. As Tom Friedman reports in an alarming column in Friday’s New York Times, Walker is also trying to remove the competitive bidding process for sale of state public utility plants. For a governor purportedly committed to cost-cutting, that effort is mind-boggling. The point of competitive bidding is to get the best price for the seller, Wisconsin. The budget measure Walker wants would also, Friedman reports, allow him to make cuts in healthcare for low-income families without going through the normal legislative process.
Citizens across the Middle East are risking, even losing, their lives to bring down the sort of centralized power Walker is attempting to grab through the budget process. Has he not noticed that such an approach is not working out so well now for the Middle East’s autocrats? [See photos of the Egyptian uprising.]
Walker is going after a common target, public employee unions, advancing the canard that they are somehow singularly responsible for the downfall of the state economy. But his proposal is not just to ask them to give back (which they eventually agreed to do). It’s about creating a situation where the governor can do what he or she wants, without even deigning to talk to the people affected, negotiate a contract for a public utility property, or even allow the legislature to have a say in healthcare cuts. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
That’s not democracy. That looks a lot like the way Middle Eastern dictators ran the show before the people got fed up and took to the streets in protest. Wisconsin’s protests, thankfully, have not turned violent. But the message is the same.