Supremes rule, now battle moves to electorate

Whether or not you believed the Wisconsin Supreme Court would find lacking a controversial ruling by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi, everyone understood this was just a preliminary bout on a statewide card.

While further legal action could block implementation of the new collective bargaining law, the forthcoming recall elections – six against Republicans and three against Democrats – will be the ultimate gauge of whether public employee unions will carry the day against Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans.

The Court’s 4 to 3 ruling upholds a law that restricts collective bargaining for public employees, which Walker and Republican majorities in the Legislature consider the linchpin of their efforts to balance the state budget without raising taxes.

There is still some disagreement on the timing of the law’s publication, but Wisconsin residents should prepare themselves for a “battle royale” of recalls, perhaps with unprecedented levels of outside money pouring into the state. If I had to make a guess, the Democrats will come up just short of taking the State Senate from Republicans, but will cut into the GOP’s 19-14 margin.

They should have won the Supreme Court election, where Joanne Kloppenburg’s vote would have been crucial in upholding future union challenges. Sumi had ruled that the vote on the collective bargaining law violated the state’s open meetings law requiring 24-hour notice of legislative action. Republicans held that since the measure was passed in a special session of the Legislature, the usual rules did not apply, and that Sumi had no jurisdiction to even make a ruling on what the Legislature had done. The Supreme Court agreed, paving the way for a vote on the state budget with the new collective bargaining arrangement factored in.

Moreover, the balanced budget produced by Republicans is no small achievement in the Governor’s first year. In effect, the GOP has eliminated a $3.6 billion structural deficit without raising taxes, and recall targets can point to impressive job growth in the first half of the year. It might just be that voters will begin to see the method to Walker’s madness, even if he did not campaign on ending collective bargaining.

Some of the Democrats challenging GOP incumbents are campaigning on the belief the budget should have been balanced with tax rate increases, which is a mistake. They would be smarter to argue that increasing state tax receipts should be applied to lessen the severity of cuts to municipal and school budgets.

For Republicans, union voters are highly motivated to reverse what they have done, and national unions are likely to pump millions of dollars into the state on behalf of local workers. Democrats and their allies in the public employee unions should be able to maintain the intensity we witnessed in February and March, when thousands of people packed the Capitol to protest the bill, but what about independent voters?

The fact that the recalls will take place during Wisconsin’s truncated summer presents a real challenge for Republicans to get their voters out to the polls. I doubt their gambit to have “faux Democrats” run in primaries will fool many people, but voter confusion has been known to happen (see 2000 Florida presidential recount). About the best they can do is force a primary and delay the inevitable, or perhaps field candidates who brand themselves as "moderate" Democrats who can rail about liberal excesses during the primary in hopes of weakening the primary winner for the general election.

Even the recalls won’t be the end of it. Expect a serious attempt to recall Walker himself in 2011, with Russ Feingold as a potential challenger for what would be an enticing executive position after 18 comparatively stifling years in the U.S. Senate.

And expect another legislative donnybrook in the fall of 2012 as Democrats campaign to regain the legislative majority in both houses and restore collective bargaining power to public employees.

This is only the end of the first act, folks, and we still haven’t met all the actors in this drama that impacts business, education, and our pocketbooks.

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