Ten years ago this very day, Feb. 18, 2011, Baraboo schools were closed, along with others across the region.
Doors were shuttered, not due to a large snowfall, nor a deep freeze plunging temperatures way below zero. Students stayed home because around 150 teachers – about two-thirds of the total—took an unscheduled day away from classrooms to join the occupation of the Capitol building in Madison regarding proposed changes in insurance, pensions, and contract negotiations.
Those changes and reforms ultimately became known as Wisconsin 2011 Act 10, the now-famous reforms instituted under then newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker, along with the legislature, whose majority had flipped to Republicans.
The reforms were a response to a severe budget shortfall left to Walker and Republicans by outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle and Democrats. Now ancient history, I remember a packed middle school auditorium in the fall of 2009, where the community was outraged at the double-digit tax increase forced by severe cuts in education spending, and little flexibility for the board to garner any savings.
The legislation allowed school districts to shop for the most cost-effective health insurance program, rather than be coerced into the union-allied Wisconsin Education Association Trust. It also called for staff to pay their half of pension contributions, instead of districts covering both the employee and employer portions. It also streamlined labor negotiations to the most fundamental portions of contracts, saving both districts and unions’ time and money in endless negotiations.
At that time, I served on the Baraboo School District’s Finance Committee, and Policy & Educational Legislation Committees. During board conversations, and at the Wisconsin Association of School Board’s Legislative Advocacy Conferences in 2009 and 2010, the liberty to select insurers was a major topic. As a State Assembly candidate in 2010, part of the platform included those reforms, along with Gov. Walker and dozens of other candidates.
The pension reforms were largely spawned by analysis from WPRI—now known as the Badger Institute—from a pension comparison in February 2010. It’s still on their website at badgerinstitute.org/reports/2010/the-imbalance-between-public-and-private-pensions-in-wisconsin.htm. The continual mantra none of these reforms had been discussed prior to the 2010 election is false.
Upon introduction of the legislation as a budget repair bill, pandemonium ensued. It’s hard to describe the fervor of uproar from the teacher’s unions and their allies. Schools were shuttered, and thousands of public employees and their allies occupied the Capitol building, with continual shouting and shaming of legislators. Union protesters were bussed in from across the Midwest. Legislators received death threats, and were often given escorts through the building for safety. P
rotesters would start shouting in the middle of legislative hearings, only to flop on the floor like 3-year olds to be dragged out by Capitol police. The day after many “sick-outs,” on Feb. 19, thousands from both sides of the issues converged on the Capitol while doctors handed out fake sick notes to union protesters. It’s certainly one of the watershed moments and times that fomented the political divide across the state that still pervades today. The occupation of the Capitol continued for several weeks.
Fourteen cowardly Democratic Senators ditched their sworn duties and fled the state to stop votes from occurring. Republicans soon revised the language in the proposal, and rightly passed the legislation into place. A few days later, the defeated Democratic legislators returned home, their stunt unsuccessful. More sweeping reforms like Right to Work, Concealed Carry, and Voter ID were soon to follow.
Where does that leave us, now a decade beyond those reforms? The non-partisan MacIver Institute did a deep dive to calculate the impact, and determined Wisconsin taxpayers have saved around $13.9 billion over the past 10 years. The savings is typically more than $1 billion per year, just in pension and health care costs. Simply regarding health insurance, the research states, “Using the same methodology that has always been used and the same public data sources, our new analysis shows that local governments have saved $2.4 billion, the state and university system have saved $1.2 billion, and school districts have saved $1.3 billion over the past nine years on health insurance.”
School districts continue to have more control over their own expenses than prior to Act 10, yet often the teachers-union dominated school boards still blame Act 10 for any financial, morale, or discipline issues facing their own schools, instead of looking to their own internal structure and leadership.
The reforms of Act 10 are here to stay. They’ve survived numerous court challenges, and were further buoyed by the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that gave public employees more freedom from the unions. Act 10 was sorely needed at the time, and the positive impact for Wisconsinites is still felt to this very day. Thank you Gov. Walker.
Scott Frostman lives in Baraboo, and has roots throughout Wisconsin. He currently serves as the chairman of the Republican Party of Sauk County. Opinions herein are exclusively his own and not those of the Republican parties of Wisconsin or Sauk County. He believes anyone can make a difference and can be reached at email@example.com.