Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Monday, Feb. 21, 2011. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are in the 7th day of protests at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
For all the accolades and criticism Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is getting for his attacks on union prerogatives, he has been cowardly in his proposals to demand that public employees contribute more to their pensions. Where's the cowardice? He exempts law enforcement personnel -- cops and firefighters -- from his pension changes, even though law enforcement salaries and benefits are the biggest budget item in local governments and their pensions are the most generous and out of whack.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, who routinely faces criticism for being too kind of public employee unions, has been braver, at least in this regard. Brown went to Orange County yesterday to speak to police chiefs and told them that law enforcement couldn't be exempt from pension reforms. This isn't new for Brown. If you recall last year's gubernatorial campaign, you'll remember the episode when someone in Brown's camp used the word "whore" to describe Meg Whitman in an internal conversation recorded on a police union voice mail when Brown failed to hang up the phone. The context of that insult was: Whitman had included a Scott Walker-style exemption for cops and firefighters in her pension plan, in order to win support from law enforcement unions.
Such statements are not good politics -- getting into fights with popular public workers like cops rarely is -- but it is wise policy. And Brown, for all his failings, deserves serious credit for being one of the few American politicians to speak straightforwardly on this point.
(A related note: Brown's approach to the budget, to the extent the governor is courting unions, also may produce more than Walker's confrontational strategy -- a point I made recently in a column at The Daily Beast).