Madison is cheek to jowl with protesters; Wisconsin legislators are (or at least were, before a reporter tracked them down) hanging out in Rockford, just outside the reach of state troopers; it’s chaos for our neighbors to the north, as Gov. Scott Walker tries to pass a budget-repair bill that would not only increase state worker contributions to pensions and health care, but also greatly limit their collective bargaining rights.

And if you think the conflict between state employees and politicians will stay north of the border, keep in mind this is all occurring as Michael Madigan has been kicking around the idea of testing how much the Illinois constitution limits legislators’ ability to change benefits for existing government workers. I can’t help but think what’s going on up north will have some impact on our own legislature’s willingness to broach the issue.

The story I’ve seen passed around the most about the conflict in Wisconsin is this one from Talking Points Memo: "Wisconsin Gov. Walker Ginned Up Budget Shortfall To Undercut Worker Rights." It’s currently the top story on the left-wing political news site, and has been "liked" on Facebook over 12,000 times. There’s some truth to it but it seems to skirt longer-term budget issues.

The charge is that Wisconsin would finish the fiscal year with a small budget surplus, no mean achievement in these times, were it not for new programs passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Walker that are the reason for a small budget deficit. That’s from the state’s fiscal bureau (PDF); the Capitol Times has a more in-depth analysis than TPM.

But Wisconsin has longer-term budget issues. A November piece in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel mentions the fiscal-year surplus but notes it’s downhill from there, as the state faces a 2011-2013 shortfall in the billions. Here’s another Journal-Sentinel piece with more details.

Which is not to say that Walker has a point. Walker is trying to decimate unions’ right to bargain… after refusing to bargain with them. He’d have a stronger position if he’d tried to negotiate and hadn’t blown a hole in his own budget to start with. And even if he can drag minority leader Mark Miller from his house and get the legislation passed, the governor’s heavy-handed tactics may, in the long run, be better for state unions.