This is an especially timely discussion as control of the Wisconsin Legislature hangs in the balance with the upcoming fall election. While it is widely believed that the state Senate will remain in Democratic hands, the Assembly is altogether another matter. With a mere five vote majority and a nation anxious to blame Republicans for both the war in Iraq as well as the weak economy, Republican retention of an Assembly majority is definitely in play. If the Assembly were to tumble into Democratic hands, Democrats would control all of state government. At long last, the thinking goes, WEAC will rise up and ensure its minions in the Capitol do what they have promised; expunge the QEO from state law books.
But is that the case? Maybe not. That picture might have been clear a few years ago, but it is less clear today.
The QEO Through Time
To understand the roots of the popular caricature of WEAC, a short history lesson is in order. As we close in on a generation under the QEO, it is easy to forget what life was like before Tommy Thompson signed the QEO into law. In the 1980s and into the early 1990s a statewide furrowing of the brow and wringing of hands occurred every Christmas season when local governments slid property tax bills into our mailboxes. In 1989 school taxes rose 9% followed by a 9.4% increase in 1990 and a 10% jump in 1991. The last straw came in 1993 when schools added 12.3% to the property tax bill. Of course every year the school tax was layered on top of the tax bill from cities, villages and town so property taxes were routinely increasing at double-digit rates.
While property taxes might not have stirred the public psyche as much as say the Vietnam War had, it was close. Every state budget discussion started and ended with property taxes. It was the third rail of Wisconsin politics. The property tax discussion drove a wedge between Democrats and Republicans; it caused short fuses between state and local governments and between general governments and schools. And everyone understood who was operating the jack that kept ratcheting up property taxes: it was teachers.
No, it wasn’t just teachers, it was WEAC. What generations of teachers had known as a helpful service organization, overnight had assumed the pale of a hard-line labor union. It was as though WEAC had undergone its own version of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The side of the organization that provided teacher services was taken over by the union side. Overnight it became clear that nothing mattered to the staff at WEAC if it didn’t entail: raising teacher pay, protecting jobs, or improving working conditions. This was the familiar mantra of every labor union from the autoworkers to air traffic controllers.