Republican leaders say the failed recall election in Wisconsin bodes well for GOP lawmakers here, who will face voters for the first time since overhauling hiring practices for teachers and state workers.
If anything, it says Tennessee is headed in the right direction, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
“The takeaway that I have is that the general public understands that we can’t be giving away the farm, so to speak, to public employees and expect to balance our budget,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville.
Last week, 53 percent of Wisconsin voters opted to keep embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office after push back against changes to collective bargaining practices for most state workers.
The election was watched closely by politicians around the country as a litmus test for how far voters are willing to go with public-employee reforms. Tennessee politicians had particular reason to pay attention.
Since Republicans took charge of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature in the 2010 election, Tennessee lawmakers have made broad changes to employee rules and significantly curbed union power.
Lawmakers replaced teachers’ collective bargaining practices with “collaborative conferencing” in 2011, giving school boards autonomy to establish hiring and personnel rules without needing to win union approval.
At the time, union advocates said they would punish lawmakers at the polls for weakening organized labor, at one point saying Republicans were advocating “fascists measures” and were engaging in “terrorism against our teachers.”
Attempts to reach pro-union leaders, including House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, and the Tennessee Education Association’s lobbyist, Jerry Winters, and executive director, Al Mance were unsuccessful as of this posting.
This year, lawmakers rewrote hiring and firing practices for state civil service workers by allowing the administration to put considerations like employee performance ahead of seniority when making personnel decisions.
With the primaries less than two months away, many lawmakers’ own job security now rests in the hands of the voters. House Speaker Beth Harwell is confident her party’s stance will be rewarded at the polls.
“I think we made a good public policy for the state of Tennessee, for the children of this state,” said Harwell, R-Nashville. “And I think Wisconsin actually verified that with their vote.”
Union influence in Wisconsin has always been much stronger than in Tennessee, noted Gov. Bill Haslam. But he says the voters’ clear-cut decision to keep Walker is a reflection of a changing attitude toward the financial responsibility of governments in general.
“We’re spending more than we bring in. We can’t do that forever,” the governor said. “Does the U.S. have the stomach to make the hard choices? I think you just saw Wisconsin say, ‘We do.’”