Partisan rancor is tearing us apart

Nothing has dominated local TV and radio broadcasts this week more than the reaction, pro and con, to Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill.

Swept into office in November’s massive election-day power-shift in our state, Republicans now have control of the State Legislature and the governor’s office and appear to be using that mandate to significantly alter the public sector landscape in our state.

As an elected official (3rd District Alderman in the City of Oak Creek) and the spouse of a teacher who belongs to a union, I’m not immune to hearing from both sides on the merits of Walker’s proposal, from my constituents who come from a heavily conservative district in Oak Creek to friends and family who are teachers and are feeling the weight of 50 years of collective bargaining success come crashing down on them in what seems like an instant.

Elections have consequences, and this one may, more than any other in the previous few decades, significantly change the influence and power of unions in our state, funding mechanisms for school districts, the compensation and benefits for employees of our state university and technical schools, as well as several other areas of employee rights gained over many years.

But how did we get to this point? I would argue we’re here because of two principal factors. The first is the slowdown in the economy, which reduced public and private revenues and the number of family-supporting jobs in our state, creating fiscal emergencies where none previously existed (or at the very least amplifying them).
Raising the political temperature of taxpayers-and voters-in Wisconsin can lead to less tolerance (even jealousy) in the public-private debate when individuals and families are faced with a life-changing loss of a job, drastic reductions in compensation and benefits, and sky-rocketing health care costs.

Given those conditions, it’s not surprising that many in the private sector look to the public sector to share the pain and suffering in difficult times…and political leaders can, and often do, exploit those feelings.

The second factor- which is less about currency and more about communication, I would argue- is the fundamental failure of our state government to address any of the significant problems facing our state in the run-up to today.

For decades, both political parties have used their hold on power to advance party agendas, and little else, ignoring significant and complex issues with the funding and the administration of schools, transportation, natural resources, job creation, health care and many other areas severely impacting the fiscal health of the state and the individual.

As we shift to a 50-50, left vs.right debate, we seem to be losing our ability to listen and fairly judge reasoned and sound ideas from our opponents, a sentiment that even President Ronald Reagan defended when talking about the political climate in the country during his presidency.

That sentiment is often forgotten in today’s vitriolic world of political debate, short-circuiting real political discourse for headline-grabbing theatrics.

Any party, whether the one you belong to, or the one you rant about on talk radio or at the water cooler, must realize that any meaningful change or progress has to come from a meeting of the minds, and a non-partisan melding of ideas and proposals to find real solutions, not one’s that are just politically expedient.

I hope we get there. But so far, I’m not impressed with the effort.


Stephen Scaffidi is an Oak Creek alderman.

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