Badgering Wisconsin

By Brian P. Dunleavy
June 11, 2012

No wonder most of the folks in the great state of Wisconsin practically ran to the polls last week in support of Republican Governor Scott Walker and his efforts to reduce the salaries and benefits paid to public sector employees.

After all, things have gotten out of hand when salaries for state workers exceed $2 million per year. Walker’s Act 10, which was passed in 2011 by his Republican colleagues in the state legislature, takes aim at these fat cats in government jobs by limiting the collective bargaining rights of unionized labor, which pushed for last week’s recall vote.

The only problem is, these $2 million-a-year state employees don’t work in the DMV. They aren’t even teachers, firefighters or police.

Alas, they don’t belong to a union.

In fact, Wisconsin’s two highest-paid state employees, each with salaries exceeding $2 million per year, are sports figures—namely, Bret Bielema and Bo Ryan, the head football and basketball coaches, respectively, at the University of Wisconsin.

That’s right, the two highest wage earners on the state rolls are athletics coaches, and this is hardly unusual. In most of this great nation’s 50 states, the highest-paid state employees are probably coaching at dear old State.

In Ohio, for example, where Republican governor John Kasich has been engaged in a similar pitched battle against the unions for state employees, the largest state school—Ohio State University—recently agreed to pay its new football coach, Urban Meyer, more than $4 million per year for the next six years. That’s $24 million for those of you scoring at home.

Next door, in Pennsylvania, Penn State University recently paid the estate of its former football coach, the late Joe Paterno, more than $5.5 million in previously contracted payouts. For more than two decades, “JoePa” had been the highest-paid state employee in the Keystone State, raking in more than $3 million annually.

At least he and his wife Sue were thoughtful enough to donate a lot of that money back to the school. Not every state is so lucky.

Back in Wisconsin, Bielema and Ryan have not been as generous with their earnings, although in granting him a substantial raise last year one athletic department official at UW said Ryan was “worth every penny”—and about 30 firefighters, apparently. It’s amazing that in an era in which state governments across the country are crying poor-mouth and cutting jobs and taxpayer services, not one “leader” like Scott Walker has stepped forward to question the riches lavished upon public college athletics. Winning games is apparently sacrosanct. Putting out fires? Eh.

Of course, you could argue that folks like Bielema and Ryan generate revenues for their states through their programs via ticket and merchandise sales. But wouldn’t that revenue be better spent on maintaining roads and railways and keeping schools open for our kids?

Instead, though, most of that money goes right back into feeding the beast that these athletics programs have become. At Wisconsin, for example, the school spent more than $100 million in 2005 to expand the football stadium. Last year, it initiated two sports-related capital improvement projects—the construction of a hockey/swimming complex and something called an “athletic performance center”—that will also total more than $100 million when finished. Where are the penny-pinchers like Walker when these projects get rubber-stamped?

Walker’s Act 10 reportedly saved Wisconsin taxpayers $1 billion (according to estimates by conservative groups)—or about enough to cover UW’s athletics budget for the next 10 years or so.

In the end, I guess that’s good enough for the voters.


About the author: Brian P. Dunleavy is a writer who lives in New York.



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