Wisconsin, like many other states in the union, is going through a recession. Our budget deficit is a historic $7 billion and our unemployment rate is nearing 8%. If you think that things couldn't get worse, Democrats in our state legislature passed a budget, without Republican support, that raises our taxes by an additional $3.3 billion. If you have a cell phone, your taxes will go up. If you own an I-pod, your taxes will go up. If you smoke cigarettes, your taxes will go up. If you own a home, your taxes will go up. If you own a car, your automobile insurance will go up (thanks to new taxes on insurance companies).
In Milwaukee County, the situation isn't pretty. Due to cuts in state funding and a previous $50 million pension scandal, Milwaukee County now has a budget shortfall of about $90 million. If we couple that with an unemployment rate of 10%, Milwaukee County is looking far worse than the rest of the state.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has proposed a solution that requires a sacrifice from county employees in order to fill in a gaping budgetary hole (after all their pension costs are a big part of the problem). Walker is asking that county employees take a 3% pay cut, contribute 5% to their own pension, and pay 15% for their health costs. If approved, these concessions would represent a 13% cut in pay. In cash terms, that is an $8,000 cut from an annual income of $50,000.
Last Friday, the Milwaukee County Personnel Board voted (4-2) to approve extending health benefits to domestic partners of county employees. County Supervisor Chris Larson, main sponsor of the plan, said that it's time we move out of the Dark Ages and finalize a plan that implements equality to same sex partners.
In response to the vote, County Executive Scott Walker issued a press release stating,
"I will veto the Domestic Partner Benefits plan approved by the County Board’s Personnel Committee today. Now is not the time to be adding any new benefits for public employees, let alone this specific benefit."
Whether Walker is right or wrong, he is staying consistent with his budget message. Walker noted that the private sector has made substantial sacrifices, and now he is asking county employees to do the same. However, some members of the Milwaukee County Board believe that now is the time to extend more benefits at the taxpayer's expense; this makes the problem worse, not better.
The Milwaukee County Personnel Committee has interjected herself into an ongoing legal controversy involving the state Constitution. In November of 2006, Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly passed a Constitutional amendment against the legal recognition of same sex partnerships. The amendment stated,
"Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state."
However, Governor Doyle and Wisconsin Democrats inserted a "domestic partner provision" that provides 40 of the 150 benefits currently enjoyed by married couples. Shortly after, the Wisconsin Family Action filed a lawsuit against the state for violating the Constitutional amendment. As a result, Doyle asked Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to defend the state. Van Hollen refused. He stated that his duty was to the people of Wisconsin, not to policymakers that willfully ignore the state Constitution.
By 2011, Milwaukee County will be paying an additional 96 cents on insurance and pension expenses for every dollar paid out on salaries. This means from 2010 to 2011, the county's pension costs are projected to double. And with the budget situation in complete disarray, the Milwaukee County Board has decided to add more benefits at the expense of Milwaukee County's taxpayers. They not only want to add a bigger burden to taxpayers, but they have issued contradictory judgments. In a press release by County Board Supervisor Sanfilippo, he noted the contradiction and said,
"Less than two weeks ago, the County Board passed a resolution mandating that most County employees take four unpaid furlough days between now and the end of the year. At that same meeting, we also voted to reject a labor contract with one of our largest unions because we cannot afford to continue to pay wages and benefits at the same levels we have in the past. These actions, combined with this vote from the Personnel Committee, send confusing messages to our employees. We’re telling them that we cannot afford to pay their wages and benefits, yet we are willing to spend $4 million a year providing health care to people who do not work for the County."
Sanfilippo's conclusion is remarkably clear. If Milwaukee County needs to reduce the wages and benefits of its employees in order to balance a historically problematic budget, then why are County Board members voting to extend more benefits to gay partners? Perhaps citizens need to call up their County Board Supervisors and let them know that we need to fix our fiscal crisis before we start providing expensive benefits to a legally unrecognized class of people. They need to know that there is a proper time and place for everything.