From River Towns
Protests across southern Wisconsin are reported Monday in the wake of the budget proposal offered by Gov. Scott Walker as interested parties from labor, the University of Wisconsin and the state Legislature weighed in and studied their options. A public hearing before Joint Finance is schedule for today.
Here are several news updates on the budget situation from Monday and Tuesday:
Stoughton students walk out
About 100 high school students in Stoughton walked out of class Monday to support their teachers who are trying to hang onto their union bargaining rights.
Junior Theron Luhn helped organize the protest. He said, “Let’s show Gov. Walker that we care about learning, and the teachers are worth every cent that we pay to them.”
Walker wants public employee unions throughout the state to drop all of their bargaining rights except for pay raises at or below inflation. He also wants them to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance.
The proposal applies to teacher unions but not to local police and fire unions.
There are reports that Walker will propose a reduction of state aid to public schools and local governments in his next state budget in exchange for more flexibility in bringing down labor costs.
At Sun Prairie High School, about 10 students cheered for teachers as they walked in the door Monday morning. Madison East High School students plan a protest march to the State Capitol Tuesday.
The Wisconsin State Journal says there’s a Facebook group started by Platteville students calling for a statewide student walkout today (Tuesday).
State Public School Superintendent Tony Evers wrote to legislative leaders asking them to reject the Walker budget plan.
UW students, teachers protest
Students and teachers from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee held protest rallies against Gov. Walker’s plans for public employee unions.
In Madison hundreds of people chanted “Kill this bill” as they filled the hallway leading to Walker’s office. They poured valentines on the desk of an office guard, asking the governor not to break their hearts. They chanted and stomped on the floor for a few minutes then left without incident.
At UW-Milwaukee, one protestor carried a sign asking, “Did Wisconsin elect a king?”
Meanwhile unions banded together to hold a news conference to condemn the governor’s plans to strip most unions of most of their bargaining power and to make them pay more for their pensions and health insurance.
Lyle Balistreri of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades union said the governor wants to create jobs.
“We can do that if we work together,” said Balistreri.
Walker went on fellow conservative Jeff Wagner’s show Monday morning on WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee to emphasize that public union workers would still have their civil service protections. Both Walker and Wagner said those protections are much better that what employees in the private sector get.
National Guard might be used if guards strike
Gov. Walker’s office says the National Guard would only be used to run the prisons in the event that guards walk out to protest cuts in union bargaining.
Some of Walker’s political opponents say they’re concerned that Guard troops would be used to keep protestors in check.
Scot Ross of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now said no governor has used the military against public employees as far back as the 1930’s. He said current events show “just how radical the steps are that Gov. Walker is taking to consolidate his power.”
But Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the Republican has never talked about using the Guard for anything more than running the prisons if need be ,and he reiterated that stance Monday.
Former Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration had talked about having the Guard run the prisons back in 2003 when hundreds of guards called in sick to protest delays in approving their contracts.
Lead lawmakers make no predictions
Legislative leaders are making no predictions on the fate of their Governor’s plan to slash benefits and bargaining powers for public unions.
John Jagler, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said members are still reviewing the measure. But he said things are “looking good” for passage.
The Assembly has a sizable 58% GOP majority. But Gov. Walker’s plan would fail in the Senate if just three Republicans don’t follow the party line.
Andrew Welhouse, a spokesman for Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, refused to say whether the plan has enough votes to pass yet.
Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said Republicans have been unusually quiet in recent days, and unlike their reaction to the rest of Walker’s proposals, they’re noncommittal about the budget package.
Some Republicans are speaking out. Joint Finance Co-chairman Rep. Robin Vos said the measure is “exactly what Wisconsin needs.” Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend said it does not go far enough.
Walker’s bill would strip public unions of most bargaining power except for wages that don’t exceed the rate of inflation. Local police and fire unions would be exempt. Employees would also have to pay more towards their pensions and health insurance.
Unions may accept pay cut but not limits on bargaining
State union workers say they’re willing to swallow the 8% compensation cut that Gov. Walker wants them to take to balance the budget. But they won’t stand for Walker’s plan to limit their bargaining power to pay raises at or below inflation.
Public unions held more demonstrations Monday at the Capitol, some UW campuses and at the homes of lawmakers who could vote on the plan later this week. Those legislators have been flooded with phone calls and e-mails from workers and others on both sides of the issue.
Thousands are expected today (Tuesday) at a public hearing to be held by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
Union contract negotiator Willy Haus said Walker might have reached the amount he wanted in concessions more easily had he negotiated with the workers, but he chose not to. Haus said the governor wants to bust the unions, and he called it a “hate crime.”
Walker told reporters the bargaining limits are designed to give public sector workers more of a choice in deciding whether to belong to a union.
Also, about 1,500 limited-term state employees would lose their health care and pension benefits. DNR assistant ecologist James Christopolous is one of those limited-term workers. He says those who can least afford it are being hit the hardest.
Regents ask for more flexibility
The UW-System Board of Regents is asking Gov. Walker to approve changes in state statutes to allow the university system greater flexibility in managing its budget.
But not all the regents are convinced the changes will lead to financial stability for UW.
Achieving the flexibility the regents want would require changing 20 different statutes that now regulate how state funds are allocated. It would also give each campus more control over setting tuition costs.
The biggest change would be requiring the legislature to approve one block grant for the entire UW System and allowing the regents to divide it up among the campuses to use as they see fit.
Speaking in favor of this approach, UW-Whitewater Chancellor Richard Telfer said it took his campus ten years to build a building following complicated state procedures but only ten months to build a recent new building funded by a city block grant.
Another change the regents want would allow the university system to float its own revenue bonds to finance building and land purchases. But Regent Tom Loftus doesn’t think that’s workable because it would make each campus responsible for repaying the bonds.
State agencies watching attendance
State agency bosses started keeping a close eye on attendance amid fears that union workers will conduct work stoppages.
According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Walker administration wants daily attendance and work reports similar to what would be required during a flu pandemic.
State union leaders have emphasized that they won’t strike, slow down their work or hold sick-ins in response to Gov. Walker’s proposed cuts in union benefits and bargaining power.
But the Journal Sentinel obtained an e-mail from Deputy Transportation Secretary Mike Berg which told his department leaders to report by 10 a.m. each day on the percentages of employees not reporting to work. They must also say whether key functions cannot be performed, and if the DOT will need help from other agencies to do its job. Berg noted that the reports are required by the Administration Department.
Meanwhile, the Journal-Sentinel says security has also been beefed up at the State Capitol and Department of Natural Resources wardens are helping Capitol Police with their patrols.
On Friday, Walker said he would deploy the National Guard if necessary to make sure vital state functions continue.
Walker gets ‘Heartless Award
Wisconsin’s Family and Medical Leave Act would be scaled back under Gov. alker’s budget repair bill, and a coalition of employee groups are giving Walker what they called their “Heartless Award.”
Under Walker’s bill, employees who work less than 25 hours a week would lose their access to family leave. And workers might have to take unpaid leave instead of accrued sick leave time to care for loved ones after family health emergencies and child births.
Amy Spear of the 9 to 5 Working Women’s group said employees in the Badger State are already stretched. She said the Republican governor should, “stop his attack on families.”
Wisconsin was among the first states to pass a Family and Medical Leave Act in 1988 under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. It gives greater flexibility than a similar law at the federal level. It also makes more workers eligible.
The proposed cuts are part of Walker’s solution to make up for a $137 million shortfall in state revenues in the current state budget.