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Kai Ryssdal: There are reports out of Wisconsin today suggesting a very slight thaw in the political standoff there. One of the absentee Democratic senators crossed back over the state line Monday to meet with the Republican leader. They talked, but apparently that’s about it.

Disagreement over pay and benefits for public employees are spreading. They’re front and center in the budget debates in Ohio and Indiana as well. Commentator David Frum has this take on what the discussion should really be about.

David Frum: What’s at stake in Wisconsin?

The New York Times reports the story of the juvenile detention center in rural Manitowoc County, on the shores of Lake Michigan. That center costs about $350,000 a year. It currently holds one inmate.

The county executive has proposed closing the center and paying another county to hold the single inmate. Seems sensible, right? So why has it not happened?

Answer: a union work rule. The relevant contract forbids the county to do any subcontracting if unionized workers have been laid off. So, unless the county can find other jobs for the six juvenile detention center workers, the county cannot contractually pay another county to store its lone inmate.

Wisconsin’s public-sector unions have been getting an impressively good time from the media in their battle with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Reporters correctly note that the unions have offered concessions on pay and benefits to help the state close its current budget gap. That seems reasonable. Even conciliatory — if the pay and benefits were the main issue.

But the issue is not primarily pay. Nor a one-year budget gap. The issue with public sector unions has always been work rules. Even under the best of circumstances, government is rigid, slow to adapt. Politicians chase votes, not profits from cutting costs, and unionized employees vote. Remember how hard it was to close redundant military bases?

So what’s at stake in Wisconsin? It is the ability of public sector managers responsibly to streamline state and local workforces that have grown by more than 50 percent over the past three decades. Union work rules make government even more sluggish and add that much more weight to the burden on state and local taxpayers at a time of fiscal crisis.

Ryssdal: David Frum was a speechwriter for the second President Bush. Today he’s the editor of FrumForum. Next week, Robert Reich. Got a comment? Send ’em by clicking here.

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