Mary Burke’s Lower Education

Democrats now know that a vote for Mary Burke is not a vote to repeal Act 10.

Democrats now know that a vote for Mary Burke is not a vote to repeal Act 10.

The recall effort in 2012 was a direct response to Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature’s signature bill, and the candidates running for governor made it clear whose side they were on.

In February that year, then-candidate Kathleen Falk told Wisconsin Public Radio she would veto any budget that did not include collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Tom Barrett said he would “Call a special session and to bring the Senate in and bring the Assembly in and introduce a bill that would restore collective bargaining rights for public employees in the state.”

Ms. Burke has previously been cagey on the issue, but her recent comments to Wisconsin Public Radio make it clear she believes the principles of the legislation are strong.

“She stopped short of saying she’d repeal Act 10, saying it’s only reasonable to ask for contributions to an employee’s health care and pension.”

What sets her apart from Governor Scott Walker, she argues, is that she would have arrived at a negotiated settlement with public employees that left collective bargaining laws intact.

Impractical politics

Ms. Burke gives herself too much credit. First, she assumes fourteen Democrats wouldn’t have fled the state to avoid their obligation of debating Act 10 and casting a vote for or against it. Second, it’s puzzling to what extent she would have negotiated a different settlement with the same outcome; in the same breath that she derides Act 10 for dividing the state, she values that benefit plans with employee contributions make for good business and policy.

Given the Democrat Party of Wisconsin’s close allegiance to public employee and teacher unions, and based on her partisan track record, she would not put herself in any position to manage the political fallout from presenting a plan that forced public employee contributions, as marginal as they are.

Most counterintuitively, per WPR, “Burke says she would not need to raise taxes if more bargaining rights were returned to public workers.” This needs to be explained: Does she suggest that empowering collective bargaining rights would yield greater revenue to the state? Or that out of beneficence public employee unions would willingly reduce their benefits for the sake of the state’s financial solvency? Given the vitriolic rhetoric spewed by Act 10’s opponents, any such suggestion would have been just as aggressively ridiculed. Though presented with the fantastical opportunity to put Ms. Burke in the governor’s chair in 2011, it would be interesting to see how the Democrat base might revolt in response to her even starting the conversation over defined contributions; the business experience she paraded on the campaign trail would suddenly turn into a negative for the base and her face would be splashed across MSNBC for being a Judas to the party.

Not running from Mr. Walker’s signature legislation could do damage to her political image among moderates. That’s why she is taking additional steps to placate public school teachers through her proposed policy architecture with traditional Democrat talk point platitudes.

“Teachers drop out after five years”

Speaking to WPR, Ms. Burke argued that Act 10 is responsible for the shortage of teachers in Wisconsin as well as a lagging economy. In the context of providing competitive wages for public employees, and especially for teachers, she decried:

“Fewer people are actually considering going into the teaching profession,” said Burke. “We also have a large loss of teachers in the first five years of teaching, and so we have to make sure that this is a profession that attracts good people and is competitive in terms of not only its pay but its benefits.”

The next day, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outlined her plan to end the tax deduction for private school students and rollback the expansion of the statewide voucher program.

Ms. Burke argues that eliminating these tax breaks will bring in $30 million in additional revenue to the state.

But this move also disincentivizes parents from pulling kids from inferior schools. Those who can afford to fund their kids’ private tuition will do so regardless of the tax break. In a similar vein, Ms. Burke didn’t choose to attend high-brow East Coast universities because it provided her family with a tax break. Those at the margin suddenly are presented with fewer options for the children’s future.

On its surface, this policy has the residue of instigating class warfare — equating private education with the wealthy, who can afford to pay more in taxes, so why why shouldn’t they? — it’s nothing new. Private educations are a hallmark of the upper class, but they’re certainly not exclusive to them, thanks in part to tax breaks like this one, as well as many generous scholarship programs often available to students of private schools.

This move plays well with the Democrat base, but certainly not the undecideds or moderates who would be affected by this.

It’s as if, during discussions about her candidacy with party brass, she stood firm on her beliefs, which I’ve argued are largely incompatible with the DPW’s platform, but eventually conceded relative minutiae in the interest of assuaging doubts other Democrat voters might have about her.

Next up, MJS reports, is a jobs plan for the Burke Campaign, some time in the next month. This will be branded as having been the work of thousands of conversations with hard-working Wisconsinites who want to be able to provide for their families. It will likely be the height of political theater so far and a perfect soapbox for highlighting Mr. Walker’s failed promise of a quarter million jobs by 2014.

As Mary Burke drizzles out elements of her campaign platform for governor she solidifies her status as a party-toeing partisan who is seeking to score political points instead of policy victories for Wisconsin. It seems her business savvy and political prowess are in constant conflict; as a Democrat, she is bridging economic pragmatism with high-minded and unrealistic public policies. What remains to be offered is a vision, other than her belief that she’ll move Wisconsin forward or get it going again — whatever focus-grouped mantra she came up with when her campaign announcement video first launched.

This inauthenticity will be apparent to Wisconsin voters, and will cause her trouble in November.

About the writer: Nik Nelson is publisher of and Founder/CEO of OpenBox Strategies, where he connects political candidates and small businesses with excellent digital marketing tools and strategies.