Published February 28, 2011
MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's explosive proposal to take nearly all collective bargaining rights away from most public workers represents just one piece of his vision for the state's future. Now he's ready to reveal the rest.
With the union rights proposal stuck in a legislative stalemate thanks to runaway Senate Democrats, the Republican governor planned to forge ahead with the Tuesday release of his two-year spending plan that will include major cuts to schools and local governments to help close a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Walker says his collective bargaining measure would free local governments from having to bargain with public employee unions as they deal with the cuts he'll outline Tuesday. Schools last week started putting teachers on notice that their contracts may not be renewed for next year given the budget uncertainty.
Walker has confirmed he will propose cutting education aid by about $900 million, or 9 percent statewide.
"All of this turmoil, all of this chaos, are examples that Walker's proposals are too extreme," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. She said more than 2,000 teachers had received nonrenewal notices as of Monday.
Labor leaders and Democratic lawmakers say Walker's proposal is intended to undermine unions and weaken a key Democratic voter base. The state's largest public employee union filed a complaint Monday alleging Walker has engaged in unfair labor practices by refusing to negotiate.
The Wisconsin State Employees Union complaint asked the state labor relations board to extend its contract and require Walker's administration to engage in collective bargaining.
Walker insists Wisconsin is broke and has nothing to offer. He spent another day touring the state Monday, renewing his threat of deeper cuts and layoffs if his proposal isn't passed by Tuesday. If the state misses that deadline, it won't be able to save $165 million through debt refinancing, which was a key part of his bill, Walker said.
Walker has warned he will start issuing layoff notices to state workers as soon as this week if the bill isn't passed, but he hasn't said who would be targeted.
School leaders are bracing for more bad news.
The governor is expected Tuesday to announce a new revenue limit that would require a $500 per-pupil reduction in property tax authority. The limits, in place since 1993, have gradually grown to reflect increasing education costs. That part of Walker's proposal alone would reduce the money available to the state's 424 districts by 7 percent, or nearly $600 million, based on a study done by University of Wisconsin-Madison economics professor Andrew Reschovsky.
"When you make unprecedented and historic cuts like these to schools, it means teachers are laid off, class sizes are larger, course offerings are reduced, extracurricular activities are cut, and whole parts of what we value in our schools are gone," state superintendent Tony Evers said in a statement.
In Janesville, a district with about 10,000 students, the school expects to get about a $5 million cut in aid, said David Parr, president of the local teachers union.
The district already is considering laying off up to 60 of its teachers to deal with a nearly $10 million budget deficit this year, Parr said. The teachers also have been asked to re-open contracts that are in effect until mid-2013, he said.
"If we don't reopen the contract, that means they would have to cut teachers," Parr said. "That's the bottom line. There aren't a lot of options left."
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards says the changes stripping workers' collective bargaining rights wouldn't take effect until an existing agreement expires or is extended, modified or renewed.
Teachers in Janesville are terrified to reopen their contracts, Parr said.
"The whole district is walking on eggshells," Parr said. "Teachers are upset, aides are upset, the administration is upset, school board members are upset."
A large state aid cut also could force Milwaukee Public Schools, the state's largest district, to lay off teachers. Their four-year contract runs until 2013. Reschovsky's analysis says the district stands to lose $60 million under Walker's revenue limit reduction alone.
A spokesman for the district declined to comment.
Wisconsin's average teacher salary of about $48,000 ranks in the top half of states nationally, though it remains significantly behind the $60,000 average salaries in the top-paying states of California and Connecticut, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Wisconsin students also rank in the top half nationally on standardized tests, scoring a full percentage point better on the ACT college entrance exam.
Walker's stalled collective bargaining proposal would require state workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions and double their health insurance contribution beginning April 1. Those changes would be expanded to nearly all other public workers, except those operating under existing union contracts, beginning July 1.
The higher benefit contribution would equate to an 8 percent pay decrease for the average worker. The state would save $30 million this fiscal year and $300 million over the next two years.
Walker said not realizing those savings would mean laying off 1,500 workers between now and July and 12,000 state and local employees over the next two years.
The statewide teachers union and state workers unions, in an attempt to compromise with Walker, have said they will agree to the benefit concessions as long as they retain collective bargaining rights. The bill takes away collective bargaining except over wage increases that don't go above the rate of inflation.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 Democrats who fled to Illinois, scoffed at Walker's layoff threat, saying such a move ignores that public employees have agreed to abide by the financial concessions demanded by the governor.
"He's not even conceding the fact that they've given them the money," Erpenbach during a Monday interview in Chicago. "He's threatening their livelihoods. He's treating them like poker chips."
Erpenbach and other Democrats who fled say Walker's unwillingness to deal motivates them to stay away. The bill passed the Assembly on Friday following a three-day filibuster.
"There's a compromise here, I just really think there is," Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin said Monday. "We continue to seek it."
Police on Monday blocked public entry to the Wisconsin Capitol following two weeks of massive protests against Walker's proposal. Only a handful of people testifying at public hearings or visiting legislators were allowed to come in during normal business hours — where hundreds had camped out for multiple nights — though police did not forcibly remove several dozen protesters who hadn't left the rotunda a day before.
Associated Press writers David Lieb in Madison and Dinesh Ramde in Chicago contributed to this report.