The Meaning of Mayhem in Madison

You might be wondering with the title why I would even attempt to comment on such a volatile situation.  As the CEO of a community bank, we are heavily invested in the wellbeing of our communities.  We help people confront their problems and realize their dreams every day; with loans, professional advice and honest conversations.  It is in the spirit of an honest conversation that I write this.  I believe an honest conversation or two is needed to fix what is happening in Madison.

Before I begin, please understand my background.  I come from a family of educators.  I have two sons attending UW-Madison trying to understand the events in our capital and I have two sons in the National Guard wondering how this might affect them.

The strife in Madison is a precursor of the impending national crisis.  If a pleasant place like Wisconsin blows itself apart, the outlook for our nation is dim.  We will either provide a good example or a clear warning.  I am hopeful we will pull together.  This budget crisis in Wisconsin represents a deeper failure of understanding about the rights and responsibilities of tax payers and public employees toward each other at the state and local levels.

We respect our teachers and other public employees.  These are our schools, our communities, our neighborhoods and our relatives and friends.  Unions have helped to elevate working conditions and wage levels in both the public and private sector and strengthened our communities as a result.  Excessive union power has also throttled whole industries leaving communities devastated.  Collective bargaining rights are not unconditional; nor must they remain as they currently are.  Most employees in Wisconsin are not unionized.  Most employers in Wisconsin do not exploit their employees.

Most of us in the private sector saw this coming.  I wrote about it in a blog in October.  Here is part of what I said then.  “The next governor and legislature will have to make the real cuts and this will waterfall down to municipal entities.  Even in the midst of a heated gubernatorial campaign it doesn’t seem that anyone is really looking the public sector employees in the eye and telling them that real cuts are coming.”

Two thoughts come to mind about the meaning of this mayhem.  One raises troubling issues about how we really treat our youth.  The second reminds me of a crucial mistake in 1994.

When it comes to our children, the fiscal deficit means that we are borrowing money that they must bear the burden of.  At times we have accepted temporary solutions which seem to place the burden on younger workers.  It is younger workers who are not hired, laid off or forced to accept wage and benefit changes “grandfathered” at their expense.  This is not how our grandparents treated us.  My generation of Wisconsinites is by far the most selfish in our history.  We have lived in one of the most beautiful, peaceful and pleasant places on earth.  This crisis is about what sort of state we will leave to our children and grandchildren.  Intergenerational equity is the most compelling moral issue in play.

This crisis is rooted in a Republican Governor’s action in 1994 to essentially centralize fiscal control over education in Madison.  The premise was that we were not up to handling the tough decisions locally with generosity and fairness.  Growth in the 1990’s masked this mistake and Governor Doyle developed his own set of accounting principles to delay the day of reckoning.  Throughout this period there was no real reason for local people to grapple constructively with the messy choices that we must live with.  We like our teachers and schools.  We should be grateful for the work public employees do.  Public employees should understand where the money for their work comes from.  There are currently more real conversations happening here than have happened since Tommy Thompson decided we could not be trusted to act like adults.  We are going to face far tougher situations locally than those that have triggered the uproar in Madison. 

We want these issues sent home to us where they belong.  We can and will do more with less.  It is happening in households and companies across the state.  Pruning is painful but it does bear fruit.  Facing these challenges within our communities will not be easy.  There may be anger and hard words.  Peace does not consist of the absence of conflict.  I know there are Republicans who are upset with Governor Walker.  I know there are teachers who are not happy with the way the union is representing them.  These voices need to be heard too.  There is no one in Madison who is better equipped to care for our community, our schools and our children than we are.  Let’s not be afraid to bring the tough stuff home, roll up our sleeves and face these challenges with big hearts and big ears.  Community should mean something, now more than ever.