The old so-called Wisconsin Idea was that government would collaborate with experts drawn from the state’s university system to craft progressive legislation. The new Wisconsin Idea is that the state is broke.

Gov. Scott Walker is bringing austerity to the intellectual breadbasket of American progressivism, and seeks to break the grip of the public-sector unions in a state that had a large hand in empowering them. His effort could become a national model for recalibrating the relationship of state governments to the unions that are bankrupting them.

To attempt this anywhere brings yelps of outrage. To do it in Wisconsin, practically the inventor of liberalism as we know it, adds insult to injury. It’s a little like heaping abuse on the Kennedys in Massachusetts, or telling Texans to forget about the Alamo.

Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Walker’s first move is a bill to address an immediate $137 million hole by, among other things, requiring most public workers to pay half their pension costs (up from zero) and 12.6 percent of their health-care costs (up from about 6 percent). The bill also curtails the institutional advantages that have fueled public-sector union power, including collective bargaining.

Early in the 20th century, Wisconsin was the self-conscious vanguard of progressivism. In keeping with this role, in 1959 it became the first state to allow collective bargaining for public employees. It was one of the first states to have a statewide teachers union. Christian Schneider of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute notes that an acrimonious teacher strike in the tiny town of Hortonville in 1974 radicalized the union and won more liberal collective-bargaining rules for public employees.

After Hortonville, according to Schneider, teacher pay and benefits and education spending all markedly increased. These trends have been basically immune to economic conditions. In the latest recession, public-sector employment in the state increased while private-sector employment shrank. In the current straits, Gov. Walker wants to halt the inexorable upward climb.

The unions have reacted with their usual class and public-spiritedness. Teachers in Madison have staged a sickout, and brought their students with them to demonstrations at the state capitol. The lecturing that has clouded the nation’s airwaves for weeks about the need for civility is apparently lost on the protesters. They carry signs comparing Walker to Hitler, putting a target on his face and denouncing him as a dictator. A Washington Post writer penned a column — picking up a slur from the governor’s opponents — suggesting Walker is America’s answer to Hosni Mubarak.

This savagery has been directed at a governor who invariably says the state has “good, hardworking, decent employees.” But he’s frank that the state can’t continue to give its employees free and cut-rate benefits. “I don’t have anything to negotiate,” Walker said the other day, not by way of bravado, but in a flat statement of brokenness.

Walker’s reforms, though, go beyond the immediate bottom line. They are aimed at curtailing the power of public-sector unions that feast on the circularity of their relationship with government. The unions work to elect politicians, then sit across a bargaining table from them — and, lo and behold, get what they want.

Walker supports denying public employees — with the exception of police and firemen — the ability to engage in collective bargaining over anything but wages. This would make it harder for unions to boost compensation with ever-more-generous benefits that, in the near term, don’t seem to cost anything. And he wants to end the practice of the state deducting union dues from the paychecks of its employees. Unions would have to collect dues themselves, and state employees might opt not to pay dues at all. Walker, in short, wants Wisconsin to stop participating in a conspiracy to fleece itself.

So many blue states confront fiscal crises partly because public-sector unions worked their will for so long. Wisconsin, of all places, may have a better idea.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]

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