State Republicans trotted out their blueprint for next year’s budget session last week and there were a lot of things on their financial to-do list.
Among them were proposals to provide all high school freshmen with computers, continue a tuition freeze at University of Wisconsin schools for another year, add a sales tax holiday for back to school purchases and — oh yes — find a way to pay for building and maintaining state highways.
That last one has defied resolution for years now and the state road-funding deficit is running about $1 billion. The picture should be clearer this week when state agencies — including the Department of Transportation — submit their two-year budget requests.
Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Republicans have resisted proposals for a long-term funding mechanism such as increasing the gas tax or bumping up vehicle registration fees. Opening the door to toll roads has been proposed — and opposed — but that idea is still out there along with proposals for naming rights or enhanced advertising.
That would be different: “This stretch of Interstate 94 brought to you by Joe Blow Industries.”
What was not mentioned in the rollout of the GOP budget blueprint was any mention of taking a “tool” from Gov. Walker’s tool-kit and extending Act 10 to include police and firefighters.
The landmark — and highly contentious — legislation essentially put an end to collective bargaining for all other public employees in the state and boosted their contributions to their health plans and retirement accounts.
One estimate by the conservative MacIver Institute earlier this year said Act 10 has saved state taxpayers some $5 billion over the past five years.
In some cities police and firefighter costs account for more than half of the operating budgets, so it is likely that an Act 10.5 could result in significant savings that would lessen the need for state aid to municipalities and provide millions of dollars — perhaps even billions of dollars — to put toward road construction and maintenance on an ongoing basis.
In the wake of Act 10, many municipalities used it as leverage to get increased contributions from police and firefighters toward their healthcare plans, so the “savings” might not approach that $5 billion mark. But requiring pension contributions and making efficiency gains by eliminating collective bargaining would produce significant savings across the state.
Gov. Walker has said in he would consider extending Act 10 to include police and firefighters, but that it was not on his agenda and he would wait for the Legislature to bring such a proposal to him.
Perhaps now is the time to let that shoe drop.
We advocated that three years ago when we wrote: “We fully respect the jobs police officers and firefighters do and the times they put their lives on the line for us. But at the same time, our state shouldn’t have a two-tier system where we put one profession above another. If our state’s teachers, public works employees and health workers are required to pay thousands into their retirement accounts each year, then our police officers and firefighters should, too.”
While much of the public support for police and firefighters is based on the risks they take on our behalf, the statistics actually tell another story. A New York Times story last year citing Bureau of Labor Statistics said “on the job fatalities occur at a significantly higher rate for ‘refuse and recyclable material collectors’ — sanitation workers — than for police officers. The same is true to power line installers and truck drivers. And fatality rates for these workers exceed those for firefighters by a considerable margin, though firefighters have serious health complications like cancer at relatively high rates in retirement.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics fatality ratings put police and firefighters in the middle of the pack of public and private sector employees — below grounds maintenance workers and taxi drivers and roughly on a par with athletes, coaches, umpires and related workers.
That argues strongly for state employment policies that treat all employees equally and fairly.
Using that tool and extending Act 10 to include police and firefighters could produce savings that would go a long way toward resolving the needs for a sustained commitment to highways and other infrastructure needs.
GOP legislators and the governor should consider that strongly as they put the state budget together.
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