Wisconsin: A state dividedby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio,
Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
As the standoff continues in Madison over public employee benefits and bargaining rights, the debate has spread to communities across the state, including those along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border.
Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature want public employees to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, and they want to strip bargaining rights from government workers. Senate Democrats remain defiantly in exile in Illinois in an attempt to block a vote on the matter.
We've checked in with residents of three very different counties in western Wisconsin, and found that opinions are as divided in those places as they are in Madison.
Douglas County, Wis., is hard scrabble, with a median household income of $43,026 a year -- which is about $8,000 below the state's average. It sits across the harbor from Duluth, Minn., in the northwestern part of Wisconsin.
A recent event in Superior, put together by organized labor, turned into a community love-fest. Several hundred union supporters held a "flashlight" vigil on the steps of the Douglas County courthouse earlier this week. Here, no one from the tea party demonstrated. Instead, passing motorists provided a noisy thumbs up.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposes to take bargaining rights from most of Wisconsin's public labor unions, whose members drive snow plows, teach in the state's public schools or inspect Wisconsin grain elevators.
Tom Kienzle of Superior, a retired sheet metal worker, said the bill targeting public labor unions threatens private sector labor, too.
"Yeah, it does. It affects all construction workers," said Kienzle. "All university work, school work is done union in the state of Wisconsin. So it's everybody's fight."
It's hard to document labor's influence in northwestern Wisconsin. But union members have traditionally voted Democrat, and Superior Democrats voted straight party tickets last November nearly three times as often as did Republicans. Most Douglas County voters chose Democrats for governor and Congress last fall, although Republicans won each office.
In Wisconsin, labor's in an uphill fight.
Republicans control both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. Only 14 Democratic senators stand in the way of passing the governor's labor bill. Among the Senate holdouts is Democrat Bob Jauch, whose home is a dozen miles away in tiny Poplar, Wis.
Even here, the tide could be slowly pulling away from Democratic Party domination and organized labor's influence.
Daro Crandall, chair of the Douglas County Republican Party, said conservative political views are gaining ground in Superior and in neighboring Duluth.
"We have a new congressman elected, Sean Duffy, over here. Across the river we have Chip Cravaack," said Crandall, referring to two Republicans who succeeded longtime Democrats in Congress. "So, obviously there is a change here. Some people are just a little bit slow to recognize that change coming."
And while Democrats and their organized labor supporters generally dominate this part of Wisconsin, in Madison, Republicans have the numbers to call the shots.
ST. CROIX COUNTY:
Hudson is a town many Minnesotans know as a charming riverside spot with boating, an old-fashioned main street, and parking meters that still accept nickels.
Hudson and the rest of St. Croix County are better off than many places in Wisconsin. The median household income is the third highest in the state, $67,748 according to census data, compared to the state average of $51,569.
More than 40 percent of its workers drive over the St. Croix River to the Twin Cities metro area to work. Eighty percent of St. Croix County workers are employed in the private sector, while almost 12 percent are government workers.
Opinions are mixed on the current impasse between public sector unions and the Republican governor and Legislature.
"I back the governor," said one woman named Joy, who did not want to give her last name because her daughter is a teacher.
"My husband also is a union man, but he's been doing a give-back of 15 percent for almost three years, nobody's been paying into his pension for two and a half years," Joy said. "So it's tight for everyone, and I think we need to balance our state budget."
She was having lunch with friends at Keys Restaurant on the hill above Hudson. At another table, Loyes Hemstock was equally forceful, on the other side.
"I don't know why the governor is going after the public employees, the teachers, the nurses, this type of thing," Hemstock said. "I feel if he wants to balance budget, he doesn't need to do this. Why not tax or do something to everyone, so everyone pays their fair share."
The mess in Madison is a big topic in Hudson. People on barstools have lively conversations about it, and many are thinking about the bigger picture.
At the Kozy Korner in North Hudson, Joe Bostany says people shouldn't be so outraged at what Gov. Scott Walker wants to do -- he ran on a platform to cut government costs, and St. Croix County voted overwhelming for Walker.
"I see protesters holding up signs [saying] 'Give us our rights.' But they're not rights, they're pension benefits that are being cut back slightly," said Bostany, who also agrees with Walker's plans to restrict the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
"Unions haven't really helped. They've forced America in general to become less competitive."
At a nearby gas station, Mary Brooks fills up her car. She says Gov. Walker has done the state a service by focusing on reducing the red ink in the budget, and public workers should pay more for their benefits.
Brooks has a marketing business, and she notes that a lot of people these days have trouble paying for their health insurance,
"I'm self-employed, I pay $15,000 a year, I have a $5,500 a year deductible, and I know they don't pay that," she said.
But Brooks says she thinks teachers deserve more respect than they get, and she's not opposed to letting them keep their bargaining rights.
On a snowy hillside in Hudson, a dozen kids from a special needs class are enjoying a day of sledding. Janet Kuhlmann watches her son Josh participate. Kuhlmann says Josh has been doing well with a new teacher. But she worries about how much longer talented people like Josh's teacher will want to go into the profession if their salaries and benefits are cut back.
"I could not do what she's doing," said Kuhlmann. "We have lot of years ahead of us that we don't know what's going to happen with Josh, and I'm depending on these teachers to help us."
Trempealeau County is one of Wisconsin's most rural counties -- it's dairy country, with lots of farms and small communities dotting the rolling hills and winding roads.
Trempealeau County sits just east of the Mississippi River, between La Crosse and Eau Claire.
The county was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in the last election, and now the 27,800 residents are divided over the standoff between the governor and organized labor groups.
On one side of the budget debate are small-business owners and residents like Jason Schank, a fourth-generation dairy farmer near Arcadia. As a farmer who's struggled to balance his own budget, Schank says he supports Gov. Walker's budget repair bill.
"I guess I don't have time to go to Madison and complain every time I'm losing money," said Schank.
Schank and his brother bought this 300-head dairy farm from their father six years ago, and they haven't turned a profit for the last two years. Like many Republicans, Schank believes public sector unions keep government from responding quickly to a changing economy.
"Unions are something that's a thing of the past," he said. "Now with OSHA and some of the other government programs, it makes it more fair for the worker. I think some of the unions have gotten heavy-handed with their demands, and it's hurting the businesses of the state and of the country."
Around Trempealeau County, residents like Schank are talking about the battle that's raging in Madison. Opinions vary, and fall largely along party lines.
County workers, teachers and other state employees here are enraged over the governor's proposal. In Trempealeau County, 77 percent of residents work in private industry, while 13 percent are government workers.
Bobbi Guthrie is a maintenance worker at the Trempealeau County Courthouse, and president of the union there. She says morale among workers is at an all-time low.
"It's ripping these communities apart," she said. "People that have been having coffee together for 25, 30 years are literally almost throwing punches over this. It's not a good thing. It's ripping apart volunteer fire departments, it's ripping apart EMS groups."
One-third of Trempealeau County's employees are union members. The biggest exception are those who work for the county health care center. Guthrie says stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights would likely dissolve the courthouse union.
"It's kind of surreal in a way, because you don't think of your bargaining rights as something that they can just pluck away like that," she said.
There's another place this divide is obvious -- at the Whitehall Middle and High School.
Superintendent and principal Mike Beighley says the school is a big deal in this town of just 1,600.
"We always have folks that are very polarized on the issues," he said. "Obviously, we have internal folks that feel like their very life is being taken away. And then we have folks in the community that think that might be warranted."
As an administrator, Beighley says he's caught in a hard place, and understands arguments on both sides of the debate.
"In terms of attacking the collective bargaining rights, it's really torn for me," said Beighley. "I understand the folks and their desire to be part of the conversation. At the same time, as the person who's responsible, it'd be nice to be able to have some control over the things I'm responsible for."
Beighley says that control could make it easier for him to cut costs if he needs to.
While the debate may be happening at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, it is reverberating through the entire state, and some say it's dividing the state of Wisconsin as never before.
Bob Kelleher joined MPR's Duluth News staff in 1990, after three years with a Duluth commercial radio station, and several years on broadcast stations in Iowa.
Stephanie Hemphill reports on environmental issues for MPR News.