Many Americans, it seems, are not big fans of recall elections, especially if they are held only because some people don't like the political philosophies of an elected official. That's one lesson to be gleaned from how Wisconsin voters this week rejected a recall effort against their governor, Scott Walker. One exit poll found that 60 percent of voters believed recalls should be allowed only when someone in office is guilty of "official misconduct."
Another lesson from Wisconsin is even more powerful. It is that solutions to a dire budget crisis require dire efforts, and that public unions are seen as standing in the way of these. Again, exit polls provide an insight, with 52 percent of voters saying they approved of Walker's efforts to limit collective bargaining for public employees. Those results, especially in a state seen as a Democratic stronghold (most voters there also said they support President Obama over Mitt Romney, despite their vote on the recall question), also signal bad news for public-employee unions, notwithstanding the raucous rallies in Wisconsin's state capitol that made them look so powerful.
Walker angered public unions when he, with the support of a Republican majority in the state Legislature, stripped them of some collective bargaining rights and removed the power of unions to automatically deduct union dues from paychecks. The latter reform, similar to one adopted recently in Utah, has drastically reduced Wisconsin's membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which dropped from 62,818 to 28,745. About 6,000 members of the American Federal of Teachers also left that union.
The backdrop to all this is a budget crisis that has gripped many states since the economic downturn in 2008. Public pension plans, in particular, took a huge hit because they relied on healthy annual market returns of about 8 percent, which suddenly no longer existed. This created a funding problem that required difficult and unpopular decisions. States either could raise taxes significantly, thus hurting their economies even further, or reduce pension benefits and angering public employees. Utah chose to reduce benefits in a nuanced way, putting most of the burden on employees who will be hired in the future. Many other states continue to struggle with solutions.
Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion deficit as Walker took over in 2011. There are no easy ways to deal with such a thing, despite what some have contended. He chose to attack bloated public unions and other programs rather than to raise taxes, and he made changes that actually attacked the problem. In Washington, as in Wisconsin, painful sacrifices are the only sure remedies to divert suicidal economic trends.
Utahns, meanwhile, should be happy their state law does not allow for recall elections. If one ever is implemented, it should allow them for malfeasance only, not because an office holder actually held true to promises some of the people didn't like.