Thursday, February 17, 2011

Madison Mayhem

Demonstrators inside the rotunda
of the state Capitol in Madison, WI
Yes, I am delving into politics . . . at risk of offending my family and friends who are current and former teachers in the Wisconsin public school system, I have to say I hope that Wisconsin's Governor, Scott Walker, does not cave in. As I write this post, Wisconsin's state Capitol building in Madison is full of protesters up in arms over collective bargaining legislation slated for a vote today. And the Democrats have bolted to avoid this vote.

Police officers have been sent out to find all of the Democrat state Senators who decided not to show up for work today. No one seems to know where the missing Senators are located. It is rumored that they boarded a bus and left the state entirely. Republicans do hold a majority but at least one Democrat Senator must be present for a vote. 

This controversial legislation would eliminate collective bargaining rights for state government employees (this includes public school teachers), require public employees to pay for half of the costs of their pension plans, and pay for 12.6% of their heath care coverage. It would save the state $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years. The state currently has a $3.6 billion budget deficit. Under this plan state worker's would see a hike of 8% to their health care and pension costs. Unions could still represent workers but they couldn't force employees to pay dues or bargain for pay increases above the Consumer Price Index unless it was approved by a public vote.

This has resulted in 3 days of protests and hundreds of teachers calling in sick, forcing school districts to cancel classes. Students across the state have abandoned their classrooms and are protesting the proposed legislation. However, the Democratic National Committee has admitted that they have activated their phone banks and are busing protestors into Madison.

Personally, I think that public employees have a sweet deal given their Cadillac pension plans, high quality health care plans, and seemingly universal prescription drug coverage. Please don't even get me started on health care coverage and how unfair it is. I am self-employed and paying nearly 100% of my health care and prescription costs for myself and my family. I really don't want to hear about how "unfair" it is to make public employees pay for a meager 13% of their own health care. As for pensions, again I'm paying for my own pension out of my own pocket. I took a huge hit like everyone else when the stock market bottomed out.

My limited experience with unions at the state and national level has convinced me that in the 21st Century unions are obsolete and should be phased out. I know a lot of conservative teachers out there in the public schools who are hiding their own personal views because they are afraid of retaliation against them by the teacher's union. I have liberal teacher friends who also wouldn't mind seeing the teacher's union phased out.

I hope that this post evokes a reaction because it should. States like Wisconsin and my own state of Minnesota are broke. Broke! I believe that this will eventually hit everyone and like it or not, we will all have to help reduce the deficits one way or another. State government certainly cannot rely on the federal government to bail them out. What is the alternative? Bankruptcy? Help from foreign governments? Can't you just see the headlines: "Bank of China Bails Out Wisconsin. Teacher's Unions Saved."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February Thaw

The backyard really is somewhere
underneath all of that snow.
Although technically the shortest month of the year, February stretches on and on and on. Seemingly endless, as that final month of winter drags out into spring. Finally though the weather is taking a turn for the better and Minnesota's temperatures have climbed up and out of that subzero range. Hopefully we can kiss -25° goodbye until next winter.

A thaw in Minnesota is almost another season in itself as it's still winter but not yet spring. The mercury rises above 40°, which means that the middle school boys insist on wearing shorts to school. People are driving around with the car windows rolled down. I even cracked the sunroof yesterday! The neighbors have started to pull out their grills in hopes of a Sunday afternoon cook-out. The dog can stay outside for longer than 15 minutes as he will not freeze to death of exposure.

The huge mountains of snow are slowly sinking. I can tell as it's much easier to pull out into an intersection without risk of being hit by oncoming traffic. I can now actually see over the piles of snow. All of the remaining snow now takes on that lovely brown tone as it's all grainy, icy, and full of dirt and grit from the roads. The glaciers in our driveways slowly melt and form those dangerously icy pools of water at the end of the drive. Best of all, the sun actually feels warm (when the icy wind isn't gusting) and it starts to stay light past 6 pm. If you've ever spent any time in the Upper Midwest in the winter, you will understand the importance of those extra hours of sunlight.

Over the weekend when the Twin Cities first broke that 40° mark, the kids didn't even bother wearing their coats only stocking hats. They abandoned their snow boots and trod through the snow wearing their sneakers only to sheepishly come back inside to change out of their soaked sneakers and back into their boots. They broke out the roller blades and took to the streets. They pulled out their air soft guns and roamed the neighborhood like a posse. They even scraped the remaining ice out from underneath the basketball hoop so that they could finally shoot baskets outside.

I've noticed things slowly materializing in the yard as the snow slowly melts—tennis balls, dog bones, shrubs, nerf guns, snow shovels that were buried back in the December blizzard. Oddly the remains of a frozen dead fox began appearing in a snowbank along one of the roads.

For reasons that I will never quite understand, people keep driving their trucks out onto the somewhat frozen lakes despite warnings that cars, trucks, and people have been falling through the ice. This happens every year so you would think that people would learn. Maybe it's really not the best idea to drive your SUV out onto the lake during the thaw. Seems logical to me.

Enjoy this brief respite from winter as it will undoubtably return for a final blast or two. Until then, I'll be soaking up some sun and dreaming of July.