MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Thursday that he will propose removing nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights to help plug a $3.6 billion budget hole.
Walker, speaking from his Capitol office, said no one should be surprised by the move he will ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve next week given that he’s talked about doing it for two months.
“This is not a shock,” said Walker, a Republican who took office in January. “The shock would be if we didn’t go forward with this.”
But union leaders, and even some Republicans, were taken aback at the scope of his proposal.
“This is a shocking development,” said Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, which represents 17,000 workers. “It ends collective bargaining for public employees in our state, after 50 years of management and workers solving problems together.”
Democrats almost certainly will unite against the proposal but are powerless to stop it. Republicans control the Assembly 60-38-1 and the Senate 19-14.
“To say it’s a power grab would be a huge understatement,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. “It’s hard to believe he’s even serious about this.”
Walker said the changes are necessary to avoid up to 6,000 state employee layoffs and the removal of more than 200,000 children from the Medicaid program.
The state faces a $137 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Walker said he will ask the Legislature on Friday to pass his plan next week in a special session. Walker will unveil his two-year budget plan to address the larger $3.6 billion shortfall on Feb. 22.
Under Walker’s immediate plan, all collective bargaining rights would be removed for state and local public employees starting July 1, except when it comes to wages. But any salary increase they seek could be no more than the consumer price index, unless voters in the jurisdiction affected approved a higher raise.
Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the next contract is settled. Public employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues.
The proposal would effectively remove unions’ right to negotiate in any meaningful way. Local law enforcement and fire employees, as well as state troopers and inspectors would be exempt.
Walker’s plan also calls for state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions starting April 1. They would have to contribute at least 12.6 percent toward their health care. Those two items would generate $30 million by July 1 and roughly $300 million over the next two years when combined with the other concessions.
Cuts that Walker said were “significantly more than the $300 million we’re saving” were coming for local governments and schools. He said removing bargaining rights of local government employees would allow more flexibility to deal with those cuts.
The governor declined to detail the exact amount of the cuts to local governments and schools. He said he met Thursday morning with state agency heads to outline his plans and, in his words, “prepare for the worst.”
Walker insisted he was not targeting public employees and that his primary concern was balancing the budget. His bill also calls for selling off state heating plants to save money and refinancing state debt to save $165 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The bill also would give the Department of Health Services the power to make any changes to Medicaid it deems necessary to reduce costs, regardless of current law. Any changes it makes would only need approval of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
Medicaid is projected to be $153 million short by June 30.
“I got elected to deal with the problems we face in the state,” Walker said. “The two biggest problems are the economy and the budget.”
Still, going after collective bargaining rights in such a dramatic fashion will almost certainly set off a firestorm in the state Capitol, not just among workers but even Republicans reluctant to go as far as Walker wants. Walker had signaled since December this was the direction he was headed, but union leaders had urged him to negotiate with them.
“This job-killing attack on public workers has nothing to do with bringing good jobs back to Wisconsin,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union that represents 20,000 workers statewide.
The budget shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of public employees, said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee.
“We still need dedicated public servants to do jobs,” Erpenbach said. “You’re talking about prison guards, you’re talking about people changing bed pans. … They’re not the problem. Rather than drag people down, why not hold people up? I don’t understand it.”
Republican leaders in the Senate and Assembly issued statements supporting Walker’s plan, but he still might find more trouble trying to convince enough others to get it passed.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said he was surprised Walker went after unions as aggressively as he did.
“It’s not what I thought he was going to do,” said Olsen, adding he honestly didn’t know how Republicans felt about it.
“They’re still soaking it in,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald when asked if he thought Republicans would approve the plan as proposed.
Both he and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, issued statements praising the plan saying it was necessary to balance the budget.
“We are out of money and the options are few,” Jeff Fitzgerald said.
The right of private sector employees to be members of unions is governed by federal law, but state and local unions are covered by Wisconsin law. The right to collectively bargain over a broad array of issues, including salary and benefits, is granted under that law. Walker and the Legislature can add or remove negotiable issues by changing that law, the State Employment Labor Relations Act.
Other terms and conditions of work subject to bargaining that Walker would remove include hours and what shift employees work, other benefits like tuition reimbursement, life insurance, vacation and personal leave days, and computer policies, to name a few.
The ban on public employees striking would remain, Walker said.
The bill also would remove the right, granted under former Gov. Jim Doyle, for University of Wisconsin faculty and staff to form unions.
There’s nothing stopping Walker from proposing a law change removing bargaining rights, said Paul Secunda, a Marquette University law professor who specializes in labor law.
“But unions and public unions are very strong in Wisconsin, but if he wants to take on that he’s going to lose a lot of the support that got him here in the first place,” Secunda said.
There are roughly 175,000 public sector employees – including state and local government workers and teachers – who are union represented in Wisconsin, according to data maintained by Georgia State University professor Barry Hirsch and Trinity University professor David Macpherson. Of those, roughly 39,000 are state employees and more than 106,000 are teachers.