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Not having cheddar for breakfast

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2011 7:00 am

If you’re an out-of-state Republican politician seeking kindred spirits, last week probably was not the best time to show up in Arizona.

Russell Pearce was tossed out of his Mesa legislative district. And a Democrat was elected as mayor of Phoenix — the second in a row.

So, maybe Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker actually was here doing as our governor is doing, touring other states to promote his new book?

“No,” Walker said Thursday evening when I asked him that, then laughed at my corny follow-up, “Really? No ‘Cheddar for Breakfast’?”

Really. Walker said his wife has family in the Valley, and what better place to escape for a long holiday weekend from America’s chilly Dairyland than here?

And climate aside, for all this week’s disappointments, Arizona still is a great temporary respite if you’re the governor of Wisconsin. Walker, of course, weathered a massive political crisis earlier this year when thousands of union-supporting protesters invaded and encamped in his state’s Capitol in Madison, upset over a bill to eliminate collective bargaining for most state public employees.

The bill became law, and several Wisconsin legislators found themselves in recall elections that had mixed results. With the overturning by Ohio voters Tuesday of a bill that state’s lawmakers passed to similarly limit collective bargaining, recall efforts have begun against Walker in Wisconsin.

This was long after he accepted an invitation to come to Phoenix to speak at the Goldwater Institute’s annual dinner, held Thursday at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale.

But during a pre-speech interview with a local television station (delays in Walker’s arrival left no time for my scheduled interview, so I could only listen and take notes as he spoke to the TV reporter), Walker said he believes that Dairy State voters will come to appreciate him as time goes on.

“The more people see the results in our state, the reforms that are in place… creating more jobs,” he said, “the more they see, the more they’ll like.” That will include plans to freeze his state’s property tax rates next month, he said.

Gov. Jan Brewer wasn’t at Thursday’s event. But she might want to make a few notes on some ideas from Walker about handling union protests.

Arizona’s unions don’t have collective bargaining ability regarding state employees.

Arizona had a similar process called “meet and confer” that was instituted by former Gov. Janet Napolitano, but Gov. Jan Brewer repealed it in April, Capitol Media Services reported at the time.

My former Tribune colleague Mark Flatten, now an investigative reporter for the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, pointed out Thursday that the issue for Arizona early next year will be changing personnel rules that proponents will argue make state government more accountable.

Flatten wrote a piece in May that quoted the head of a prominent public-employee union. She vowed Wisconsin-like protests at the Capitol if Brewer goes ahead with calling a special session in 2012 asking for changes to the personnel rules.

Flatten had written a report earlier this year titled “Undisciplined Bureaucracy,” which concluded that the process to discipline or remove state employees for infractions such as being asleep on duty and sexual harassment, among others, was unwieldy and expensive compared to the private sector.

In his report, Flatten cited other states’ personnel-rules changes — particularly in Georgia, where the time an employee whose conduct is questioned could be on paid administrative leave was sharply reduced, hastening resolution of investigation into his/her conduct — as working.

In the interview, Walker said the changes he supported in Wisconsin enabled state workers to be eligible for merit pay and bonuses to be granted for productive work, including a pay-for-performance plan, “just like the private sector.”

He said these measures protected middle-class jobs.

“Every week that goes by, the reforms are working,” he said.

You don’t have to look hard to see how many public-sector employees have benefits that are greater than many of those in the private sector. Public employees say that’s why they go to work for government — not for the higher pay they can get in the private sector, but for the benefits that in many situations are more plentiful.

Walker said those workers need to ask their neighbors in the private sector what kind of health-care and pension benefits they have, implying that the government workers still have it better in Wisconsin even with this year’s new law.

Maybe those benefits need to be cut back to help balance state budgets. Who knows? Each side has its own numbers. But while cost-cutters like Walker gain short-term budget advantage, what’s the long-term economic result of fewer dollars in the pockets of state government employees, one of the largest groups of workers in a state?

As for Brewer, perhaps she might want to take to heart Walker’s observation that if he had this year to do over again, he’d lay out better political groundwork beforehand.

Good idea.

For as Russell Pearce could tell him: You just never know when you’re going to be recalled.

• Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s (mscarp1@cox.net) opinions here on Sundays. View his video commentaries at evtnow.com/scarp

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