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Originally published Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 3:58 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

The political-overreach pendulum

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker goes too far in trying to dramatically weaken collective bargaining. Certainly, public-employee unions have to give a lot to help the states with their huge budget shortfall. But the Wisconsin governor stepped over the line.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The pendulum of politics swings faster and faster in the 24-hour news environment. One political party is up, the other, down, and the cycles in between keep shrinking. This is not all the media's fault. Every political party overreaches — and over-interprets its mandate.

The Democrats in Congress over-read their 2008 victories and terrified Middle America with their ambitious health-care plan. No doubt, some goals and details were solid and necessary. But the sweeping proposal took too much time away from boosting the economy and proved impossible to explain. And, now, here come the Republicans.

If it is not Republican U.S. House members cutting every program they dislike, such as Planned Parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, then it's Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker trying to kill public-employee unions.

With most of the 50 states staring at a cumulative $82 billion budget shortfall next year, something has to give. A lot of somethings. Public-employee wages and benefits must be trimmed dramatically. No maybe.

But crushing public employees by weakening their right to collectively bargain, as Walker aims to do, dismisses the laws of physics. Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion holds that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Does Walker really want to spur a continued wave of nationwide protests and become poster boy for a tea party on the left? The tea party on the right is more than enough for most people to absorb.

Public employees have long bristled at the idea of paying more for health benefits and taking furloughs and pay reductions. That sentiment and entitled behavior for many years is the reason Walker is where he is today.

But Wisconsin's public-employee unions agreed to the money givebacks. This is no longer about balancing books; it's a mean-spirited power grab. Public employees don't want to forgo collective bargaining and they should not have to.

In the new economy, private- and public-sector workers are accepting higher health-premium payments, furloughs and pay cuts.

Where exactly are the correct lines?

In our state, I can readily support state Sen. Rodney Tom's proposal for something called, "5-5-25," a plan for significant cuts to address Washington's budget crisis. The Medina Democrat suggests: a 5 percent pay cut for state employees, not through furloughs but actual salary reductions; a 5 percent reduction in work force, not through unfilled positions but elimination of "butts in seats"; and he believes the public sector should mirror the private sector and pay 25 percent of health premiums.

Gov. Chris Gregoire talked about public employees paying close to that amount but gave away the store, agreeing to a more-modest increase from 12 percent to 15 percent. What a missed opportunity.

Tom is not advocating these changes for the fun of it. He wants to direct existing state dollars to education: "Either we cut K-12 and higher education or make real reforms in the way we deliver core and non-core services."

That's a reasonable, middle-of-the-road message. Forty-four percent of American voters describe themselves as politically moderate. Walker has gone too far and will find that out.

And news flash to Republicans in Congress: Moderate people do not hate the Public Broadcasting System or National Public Radio. They believe there is a federal role in Planned Parenthood. And while we are at it, sensible Americans do not believe unions should be wiped out, stripping middle-class workers of dignity and the ability to bargain in the future.

Politicians underestimate the power of the middle at their peril.

President Obama enjoyed his best months in office when he negotiated with Republicans on the dreaded tax package. He compromised and suddenly he was winning moderate Republican votes to repeal "don't ask don't tell" for gays in the military, for his long-sought START treaty and for aid for 9/11 first responders. The president's favorable numbers surged.

Walker may be getting plaudits from his Republican financiers, the Koch family, for taking it to the unions. But this is just another example of the pendulum swinging too far in one direction. Average middle-class Americans get it; they know Walker overplayed his hand.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

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