Steve McLuckie came to Wisconsin to help out his teacher's union colleagues during the protests against Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to strip most public workers of collective bargaining rights.
"I'd half-jokingly say to them, 'Gov. Walker's trying to make Wisconsin into Missouri,'" said McLuckie, a former Democratic lawmaker who's now organizing director for Missouri's National Education Association.
His Wisconsin union colleagues didn't find the comparison particularly funny, mostly because there may be some truth in the joke.
Missouri, perhaps more than any other Midwestern state, provides a long-term prototype of policies championed by Walker: a state government that's less lucrative for public workers but more friendly to businesses and tax-averse citizens. A look into Missouri's past could provide a glimpse into Wisconsin's future.
Some of the predictions being made by Walker's opponents haven't proved true in Missouri. For example, weaker public-employee unions has not led to Republican domination at the polls that some have predicted for Wisconsin.
But Missouri does lag Wisconsin in many quality-of-life indicators that unions and their Democratic allies claim is the trade-off for lower taxes and lower pay for public workers.
"Over time, it's inexorable that if you choose a low tax value you'll pay for that through a deteriorated education quality," said Chris Kelly, a Missouri Democratic state representative and former budget committee chair.
Walker said in an interview last week that lower taxes doesn't equate to lower quality public services. He said asking public workers to pay more for benefits — effectively cutting their pay — is a better alternative to layoffs, which would harm public services.
Rather than Missouri, Walker compared his union and budgeting approach to Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels abolished state public unions by executive order in 2005. The move led to government consolidation, reorganization and privatization.
"Over time, their government got more efficient, they got more effective, they got more accountable to the public," Walker said. "The best employees, the good employees, ultimately got rewarded."
Wisconsin and Missouri are both Midwestern states with a population on either side of 6 million. They border Illinois from different sides and have a roughly 70-30 urban-rural mix. They have higher-education systems anchored by a behemoth land-grant research university.
But when it comes to public sector workers, the two states have followed widely divergent paths. While Wisconsin public workers won collective-bargaining rights with local governments under state law in 1959 and with the state government in 1967, their Missouri counterparts didn't win those rights until 2007, when Missouri's Supreme Court ordered that unions have a right to collective bargaining. However, implementation has been spotty and a state law that codifies it still doesn't exist.
Wisconsin public-sector workers make as much or more than the national average in most categories of public sector worker, with more experienced workers especially well compensated, according to an annual compensation survey by the American Federation of Teachers. In Missouri, public sector workers are among the lowest paid in the nation.
A public-school teacher in Wisconsin with more than two decades' experience earns an average of $49,630. In Missouri, that same teacher would take home just $39,320. A veteran prison worker here averages $48,198; there, it's $31,395.
Although cost of living is lower in Missouri than Wisconsin, public workers in Missouri also do significantly worse than their private sector counterparts. The public-private pay gap is highest in the nation, according to a recent report from the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
"Public employees generally enjoy better job security, protection, and benefits than their private sector counterparts," wrote Missouri Republican state Sen. Luann Ridgeway in a recent online essay titled, "Missouri is Not Wisconsin." "In return, taxpayers expect them to be faithful to the duties entrusted to their care."
Amid the tales of woe for Missouri public workers, there are bright spots. The 1,200 state troopers rank middle-of-the-road in compensation nationally, said Ken Sears, executive director of the Missouri State Troopers Association, after the Legislature agreed to pay bumps of 15 percent to 20 percent starting five years ago.
Sears acknowledged it's an easier sell to legislators for unions like his, which are widely visible to the public, than to more obscure state workers such as prison guards and mental-health nurses.
Open for business
Conservatives might look at Missouri and point to these benefits: an approach to government that produces balanced budgets and low taxes.
Walker has long argued that the Wisconsin economy is out of balance: overly friendly to public workers and not welcoming enough to businesses and taxpayers.
He might find a lot to love about Missouri. Missouri politicians have, in a bipartisan way, produced balanced budgets for decades, said Kelly, the Democratic state representative.
"We don't spend more than we have, and that's been true through every administration," Kelly said.
The state has the highest bond rating available, AAA, from the three rating agencies, one of just eight states with it. Wisconsin is just behind in all three agencies' rankings.
The state also appears to be more open for business, to borrow a familiar Walker line.
Missouri ranks 19th in small-business friendliness; Wisconsin lags behind in 33rd. Their corporations pay a flat 6.25 percent income tax; ours pay a flat 7.9 percent rate. Despite it, Missouri's unemployment rate, 9.1 percent, is higher than Wisconsin's 7.4 percent.
Missourians also pay lower income, sales and property taxes.
For example, the state taxes gasoline at 17.3 cents a gallon, while Wisconsin collects 32.9 cents a gallon.
At what cost?
Unions and their Democratic allies could use the low pay for public workers in Missouri — and comparatively low funding for education and other social programs — to point out a lower standard of living.
Missouri ranks behind Wisconsin in educational achievement and significantly ahead of it in rate of incarceration. It costs more to go to college there. Missourians live shorter lives than we do. They spend an extra $129 annually in car maintenance because their roads are worse than ours. Their bridges rank seventh-worst in the nation; ours rank 15th-best.
Labor leaders point out that all those indicators rely both on adequate funding and high-quality public workers: teachers, prison guards, nurses and civil engineers.
"If you invest in a good human infrastructure, you generally have better services for the citizens who pay the taxes," said Susan McMurray, a Wisconsin lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
She said that people in Wisconsin, as in other Upper Midwestern states, have grown used to a high level of public services over generations and will not accept diminished quality.
The next decade may test that idea in Wisconsin. But if nothing else, the past six decades in Missouri have shown people there have consistently supported their government's approach.
"They're not comfortable with the level of services," McLuckie said, "but the disconnect comes when you try to raise income and taxes to get those services provided."
That's just capitalism at work, said Joseph Haslag, chief economist with the Show-Me Institute, a St. Louis-based advocate for open markets.
"If wages are low, it reflects what the society is valuing," he said.
It's up to each state, he said, to decide what value it attaches to public services and balance the costs associated with providing them.
- State Journal Assistant City Editor Mark Pitsch contributed to this report.