In the far northwest corner of Wisconsin, state troopers staked out the home of a local legislator, knocking on his door but failing to find him and return him to his job at the Capitol. They came up similarly empty in their search for the rest of 14 Democratic state senators who fled Madison to block a vote that would curtail bargaining rights for public unions.
With their showy boycott, though, the Democrats are merely doing what countless lawmakers of all political persuasions, at all levels of government, have done less explicitly for decades: They have run away from the mathematical certainty that this much revenue can pay for only that much spending.
The consequences of their boycott will ratchet up early next week. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that a refinancing of state debt must be accomplished by then to free up $165 million. If the Legislature fails to approve that, it will have to come up with more budget cuts.
The Wisconsinites should go home. So should the Indiana lawmakers who abandoned their Legislature in copycat fashion. They need to show they can be responsible stewards of the public purse.
But that responsibility is what they're really hiding from, just as their counterparts in local, state and federal governments have done for decades before them.
And that's the overarching wrong here: Our public officials — Washington, Springfield, City Hall, are you there? — need to stop hiding from the raw arithmetic of unsustainable spending. They need to emerge from their burrows, admit that taxpayers have caught them with red ink all over their hands, and firmly align government expenses with revenues.
Protesters complain — many from afar — that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has gone beyond budget needs and set out to bust public-employee unions. If the people of Wisconsin feel that way, they surely will punish Walker and his fellow Republicans at the ballot box.
But remember, Wisconsin just had an election, and the voters picked Walker. He did not mask his politics — or his intent to reduce state spending on personnel. Just as voters in many states yanked from office many politicians who have spent their careers taxing, borrowing and spending with little attention to how much government citizens want and can afford.
We'll all learn together when and how the Wisconsin and Indiana melodramas end. And while we don't applaud people who collect paychecks for jobs they shirk, all of us owe measured thanks to the carpetbagging legislators — or, as critics call them, the flee-baggers.
These lawmakers on the lam unwittingly have reminded us that elections have consequences. And the consequences Americans evidently want in 2011 involve making all manner of governments live within their means.
From that emphatic sentiment, no public officials should run and hide — by leaving town or, as is more common, by delaying difficult decisions about how much to spend.