Upstream, is Wisconsin trying to be more like Mississippi?

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, June 9, 2012

OXFORD — Used to be, if we Mississippians got in our namesake river and paddled upstream as hard as we could, we’d arrive in ideologically alien territory. We’d eventually pull ashore in places such as Iowa and Minnesota, where far more folks known as liberals and unionists dwell.

Some see signs times are changing. After all, not only did Wisconsin elect a fiscally conservative Republican governor two years ago, last week they affirmed their confidence in Scott Walker in a recall election.

There is always a tendency in punditry to make broad, conclusive statements on thin gruel.

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Conservatism has always had a lot of followers in the headwaters and there are a lot of big-time liberals downstream.

Too, while Walker won the recall vote by a slightly larger margin (54 percent) than his initial election, it was hardly a slam dunk. After all, 46 percent of voters of the record total turning out, see him as almost satanic.

There has been no seismic shift in ideology.

So what did Walker do to earn enough wrath to force only the third gubernatorial recall vote in American history?

Well, he did what he said he would do.

State employee unions had the great state of Wisconsin by the throat. By skillful legislative maneuvering (some claimed illegality, but lost in court), Walker ended the practice of allowing collective bargaining by most public unions. They pretty much decided when they would work and how much they would be paid. They don’t anymore.

Walker also had the temerity to suggest they should pay something toward their pensions and something toward their health insurance.

Some may remember when this took place. There was a siege of the Wisconsin Capitol. It was high drama stuff, with high stakes for the AFL-CIO and other unions.

What appears to have carried the day for him last week, however, is that while Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion budget deficit on Walker’s first day in office, a sharp reduction in spending on government employment and other areas has resulted a projected surplus balance of $154 million by the end of the 2013 fiscal year. All this and the state’s jobless rate dropped from 7.7 percent in January 2011 to 6.7 percent in April 2012.

State employee unions, including teacher unions, are notably weak in Mississippi. They have no legal standing, no “rights” other than a right to exist and speak out. The situation with unions for private sector employers is much the same in this state.

Perhaps that’s why workers here are at the other end of the spectrum.

Mississippi employees didn’t even have health insurance until this generation and certainly don’t have a free ride now. As for pensions, even with the contributions state workers are now making to their retirement funds in Wisconsin, the rate there is about a third of the nearly 10 percent deducted from the pay of state employees here.

Substantively, there remains a lot of water between the thinking, on average, of Wisconsonites and Mississippians.

It is noteworthy that more than $70 million was spent in the recall contest, two-thirds of it by Walker. It is noteworthy that there was unprecedented name-calling, character assassination and such. Walker even had the Tea Party label thrown at him relentlessly.

Regardless, this appears most of all to be a victory for pragmatism or, more specifically, for math. Big cities dominated by big unions (Detroit comes to mind) have been devastated by doing the same things Congress has been doing and continues to do — overspending. GM would sell a car for less than it cost to make it, hoping to keep up with union wages and pension demands via volume. Congress keeps writing IOUs and signing our grandchildren’s names.

When he was elected, President Barack Obama, who was smart enough to maintain a safe distance from the recall debate, carried Wisconsin by 13 percentage points. He lost Mississippi by 7 points. That’s a 20-point ideological spread and though dented, it hasn’t gone away.

Maybe what residents here and residents up in the headwaters understand in common — and wish our elected officials did, too — is that deficit spending was foolhardy, is foolhardy and always will be foolhardy.

Cutbacks have consequences. Cutbacks cause hardships for families, friends, neighbors. Wisconsin didn’t vote to punish unions. Wisconsin voted for fiscal sanity.

Wisconsinites are not lining up to join the Tea Party. They’re realizing that living beyond your means is nuts.

A lot of bad stuff can be said about Mississippi. But the budget balances every year. And the debt is manageable.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail