Scott Walker may have wasted political capital by sparing Wisconsin’s police and fire fighters

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Floating in the sea of state employees who flooded Madison late last week are specks of black and blue. They are not waiting for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to end his fight against collective-bargaining privileges for state employees, but for the crowd of teachers, custodians and others to get unruly.

They are police — state and local — as well as firemen, and all of them are exempt from the bill that has shut down Wisconsin’s schools and its state government.

“Currently, we’ve had a long tradition and when it comes to fire and police service in the state of Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told Channel3000. “Statutes are very different when it comes to whole series of rights and responsibilities.”

But in other states, even “essential” personnel have slimmed down.

“When Mitch Daniels abolished collective bargaining for state workers in Indiana by executive order, his move included the state police,” the Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro told The Daily Caller. “The reforms being debated in Ohio include police and fire workers.” In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has locked horns with the New Jersey State Police over retirement requirements. Currently, NJ State Police employees can begin drawing their pensions at age 55, regardless of when they joined the force; Christie’s reform would make it so that employees have to work 30 years before they can begin drawing pensions.

In Wisconsin, the state police, several police locals, and a firefighters union (just a fraction of the states more than 300 public safety union organizations) endorsed Walker in the gubernatorial race. That he’s sparing them now, when so many of his gubernatorial peers have confronted the cost of essential personnel, has both his critics and allies wondering if he’s rewarding allies and punishing his foes.

“Tellingly, some workers — namely, those who tend to be Republican-leaning — are exempted from the ban; it’s as if Mr. Walker were flaunting the political nature of his actions,” wrote the New York Times’ Paul Krugman.

Libertarian blogger and Troy University professor Stephen L. Taylor wrote that it is “not an unreasonable supposition” that Walker is rewarding the firemen and policemen who helped him during his campaign for governor. “I would go beyond that and not ask why Walker is doing what Walker is doing,” Taylor added, “but rather ask why we have not seen (or, at least, I have not seen) his ideological allies calling for him to include police, firefighters and state troopers in the bill?”

But it’s not as simple as Krugman makes it out to be. “Politically, police and fire unions are not Republican bastions; they split their allegiances between the parties,” Barro said. “Because they are a swing constituency, Republican politicians have more incentive to try to make nice with them than with other public employee unions. … I can understand why [Walker] would make a strategic choice to exclude them — politicians pick their battles all the time with an eye toward coalition building — but I do think it’s unfortunate.”

If Walker were hoping to gain politically by sparing police and firemen, his plan has likely backfired. Last week, Tracy Fuller, director of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association, denounced Walker’s decision to abolish collective bargaining privileges for public employees.

“I specifically regret the endorsement of the Wisconsin Trooper’s Association for Gov. Scott Walker. I regret the governor’s decision to ‘endorse’ the troopers and inspectors of the Wisconsin State Patrol,” Fuller wrote. “I regret being the recipient of any of the perceived benefits provided by the governor’s anointing. I think everyone’s job and career is just as significant as the others.”

Fuller and the WLEA, which includes state police as members but is a completely separate organization, endorsed Scott’s opponent, Tom Barrett.

Chris Matthews joined the fray on Monday night by arguing that Walker was playing favorites. “Why does the Governor pick on the unions that didn’t endorse him in the last campaign but give a free ride to the firefighters and the cops who did and the localities?”

His guest, Wisconsin Republican state senator Glenn Grothman, slammed Matthews as “completely uninformed,” adding, “The firemen’s union around this state have campaigned against Republicans, and the statewide police have repeatedly campaigned against Republicans.”

Walker said during a CBS interview last friday, “There are 314 fire and police unions in the state. Four of them endorsed me. All the rest endorsed my opponent.”

Politifact clarified that it was three locals and the state police that endorsed Walker. “During the campaign last November, leaders of the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association and Milwaukee Police Association appeared in an ad supporting Walker and blasting his opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett. Walker also won endorsements from the West Allis Professional Police Association and the Wisconsin Troopers Association.”

Barro defended the bill as better than nothing, despite the exclusion of essential personnel. “I don’t think Wisconsin has to be precedent-setting in this regard, even if Walker’s reform package passes with an exclusion for police and fire.”

This article has been updated.