Tenn.'s debates contrast Wis. rift
State Democrats say they won't flee to block union legislation
By Tom Humphrey
Knoxville News Sentinel
NASHVILLE - State political leaders say there is little chance Republican-led moves to reduce the rights of public employee associations and unions in Tennessee will produce the level of confrontation that has drawn national attention to Wisconsin.
"Their pension plan is very different than ours. Our budget situation is very different than theirs. So I don't think you'll see anything like that here," said Gov. Bill Haslam last week.
Jerry Lee, president of the AFL-CIO in Tennessee, sees gubernatorial attitude as another difference between the Badger State and the Volunteer State.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has spearheaded a confrontation with unions as part of budget-balancing efforts, leading to thousands of protesters descending on the Capitol while Democratic senators fled to block a vote on Walker's proposals.
Haslam, on the other hand, has determinedly avoided taking a position on the three bills that brought about 200 pro-union protesters to the Capitol last week. The measures would stop collective bargaining between teachers unions and school boards, end dues deductions from government paychecks and prohibit union donations to political campaigns.
Lee said Haslam, "being the huge businessman that he is, is probably a little more laid back" than those motivated by political ideology. Besides, even if sympathetic with the bill, Haslam doesn't really need to get involved, Lee said.
"He's got these fire-in-the-belly, blood-in-their-eyes Republicans (in the Legislature) coming after the unions," Lee said. "He doesn't have to (lead)."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican who is supportive of the bills, said he has been "Googling" Internet research on differences between Wisconsin and Tennessee.
Wisconsin has a population of about 5.8 million versus 6.3 million in Tennessee, he said. Further, the total state budget there is about $57.8 billion versus $30 billion in Tennessee.
The projected revenue shortfall in Wisconsin for next fiscal year is $3.6 billion compared with "somewhere between $800 million and $1 billion" here, Ramsey said.
Thus, he said, Wisconsin has fewer people, a bigger budget and an "almost fivefold" bigger deficit to deal with.
According to an AFL-CIO website, Tennessee's work force includes about 115,000 union members, or just 4.7 percent of workers. This apparently does not include the Tennessee Education Association, which is often called a teachers union but prefers the term professional association.
Wisconsin is listed as having 355,000 union members, or 14.8 percent of the work force. The national average for union membership is 10.9 percent.
"We are a right-to-work state and don't have the tradition of collective bargaining that they do," said House Speaker Beth Harwell.
U.S. Census figures from 2008, the most recent available, also show that Tennessee teachers are paid an average salary of $44,800 per year compared with $49,100 in Wisconsin.
For state government employees, Census data from 2008 show Tennessee paying an average of $45,428 compared with $57,360 in Wisconsin.
And a study released last week by the Tax Foundation, using 2009 data, shows Tennessee has lower taxes per person than all but three other states - Alaska, Nevada and South Dakota.
Wisconsin ranked fourth highest in the nation in the same report.
Per capita state taxes are listed as $1,851 in Tennessee, $3,418 in Wisconsin. Combined state and local taxes are $4,427 in Wisconsin, $2,752 in Tennessee. Tennessee's per capita income is $36,157, Wisconsin's $40,321.
Tennessee Democrats say the state's fiscal restraint is anchored in decades of Democratic control of the Legislature, often with a Democratic governor as well. This year marks the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans have held control of the governor's office and both chambers of the General Assembly.
Republicans are thus going overboard in Tennessee to fix a problem that does not exist, said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, and are motivated by politics rather than budgetary considerations.
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