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State Budget Battles are about More than Cutting Deficits

Assaults on middle-class Americans are spreading rapidly.

Earlier this year, people across the country were riveted to the politics of Wisconsin. Claiming to address the state's budget crisis, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed eliminating the right of public workers to unionize. Wisconsin's citizens immediately took to the streets in massive protests — only to see the union-busting legislation pushed through by the state senate in a late-night surprise vote. Although Madison's capitol building is now cleared and most of the news teams have bolted, the issue of public unions is far from over in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, it has just begun for the rest of the country.

The dire budgetary situations many states find themselves in are real problems, and they require real solutions. But some state leaders are proposing "solutions" that are forcing social policy shifts and making political power plays that will do nothing to reduce deficits.

In Wisconsin, Walker proposed one such non-solution: revoking the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Citing an urgent need to compensate for Wisconsin's $140 million budget shortfall (which he helped create by handing enormous tax giveaways to corporations), Walker seized his opportunity to vilify and weaken his political opponents, ultimately to the benefit of the wealthy corporate interests that supported his campaign.

The governor completely blindsided Wisconsinites. Scott Walker didn't campaign on a platform of dissolving public unions. How could he have? Imagine, on the campaign trail, a politician telling the custodian at your child's school, the police officers and firefighters keeping your community safe, or the nurses at the county hospital that he or she, if elected the chief of all public workers in the state, doesn't value their right to earn a fair wage and work in a safe environment? Or campaigning on a plan to swiftly eliminate protections for that right without even achieving meaningful deficit relief? It's clear that such a proposal wouldn't have been warmly received at town-hall meetings.

A similar situation unfolded in Ohio, where teachers who were willing to make extensive concessions were nevertheless ignored in Gov. John Kasich's power grab. Michigan has imposed a full-scale assault on democracy by passing a law allowing Gov. Rick Snyder to declare any city or school system to be in a state of financial emergency. Snyder gets to install unelected, unaccountable managers with absolute control to eliminate contracts or privatize services at all state agencies and in any city he chooses.


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One could hardly conceive of a more efficient way to transfer the public's resources into a few private hands.

What's going on in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan serves as a prime example of the corporate elite's vision for America. The assaults on middle-class Americans are spreading rapidly. Similar union-busting schemes are underway in states across the country, including Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho, Iowa, and Florida, with still more states likely to become targets.

The debate isn't about fiscal crises. It's about who holds the power in state government. It's about making the middle class pay for tax cuts for giant corporations, because giant corporations have more money to spend on lobbying and elections. But Americans understand that a person's political power shouldn't be proportionate to the size of his or her bank account.

Wisconsin's working families aren't alone in their demand to have a voice in the political process that affects them so significantly. The pro-corporate power plays in Ohio and Michigan also drew thousands of demonstrators. Efforts to recall both Walker and complicit GOP state legislators in Wisconsin are underway. A referendum on the union-busting legislation is in progress in Ohio. We're seeing strong pushback in Michigan as well.

As long as corporations and special interests have the ear of those in power, Americans will be at risk of having their rights trampled on for the benefit of wealthy elites. But as the patriots in the Midwest have shown, the American people will not stand idly by and just let it happen.

Michael Keegan

Michael B. Keegan is president of People For the American Way. A longtime activist and business leader, Keegan is a founding national board member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Public Library and as a trustee of the Muriel Pollia Foundation.

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