MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin officials couldn't agree Friday about whether an explosive law taking away nearly all public worker collective bargaining rights was about to take effect after a nonpartisan legislative bureau published it despite a court order blocking implementation.
The head of the Legislative Reference Bureau that made the move, as well as a nonpartisan attorney for the Legislature, said the action was merely procedural. But Republican legislative leaders, who encouraged the bureau's action, insisted it meant law would take effect Saturday.
Gov. Scott Walker's office, meanwhile, would issue only a vague statement saying simply that the administration planned to carry out the law as required.
The move is just the latest in a series of parliamentary and legal maneuvers employed over the past six weeks to enact a bill that prompted Senate Democrats to flee the state to block a vote and brought on waves of Capitol protests that grew larger than 85,000 people as Wisconsin became the center of a national fight over union rights.
Ultimately, the law's fate likely will be up to the state Supreme Court to decide. A state appeals court earlier in the week asked the Supreme Court to take up one of several lawsuits challenging its approval.
The latest chaos began Friday after the Legislative Reference Bureau published the law at 3:15 p.m.
Bureau director Steve Miller said the action doesn't mean the law takes effect Saturday. He says that won't actually happen until Secretary of State Doug La Follette orders the law published in a newspaper, and a judge ordered last week that La Follette not do anything.
"It's not implementation at all," Miller said. "It's simply a matter of forwarding an official copy to the secretary of state."
La Follette, however, said he didn't know what the action means — but he's not doing anything given the court order.
"I think we're going to have to get some legal opinion on this," he said.
A judge last week issued a temporary restraining order blocking any further implementation of the law while the court considers the lawsuits. The order specifically blocked La Follette from publishing the law.
Scott Grosz, a staff attorney for the nonpartisan Legislative Council, agreed with Miller and said the action meets certain obligations under the law, but nothing can happen until La Follette acts.
"And at this time the secretary's actions remain subject to the temporary restraining order," Grosz said in a memo to Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who said he went to the Reference Bureau with the idea, insisted the action means the law takes effect Saturday.
"It's my opinion it's published, it's on the legislative website, it's law," Fitzgerald said. "It was clear to me after our discussions this morning, if it in fact it is posted and it says published and there's a specific date on it, it would be very hard to argue this was not law."
John Jagler, a spokesman for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said he also assumed the action means the law takes effect Saturday.
Walker signed the collective bargaining measure March 11 and La Follette had designated Friday as the date of publication. But after the restraining order, La Follette sent a letter to the Reference Bureau saying he was rescinding the publication date.
The Reference Bureau said it's still required to publish every new law within 10 working days after it's signed by the governor, on the date designated by the secretary of state, so it went ahead on Friday.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice issued a statement saying it would evaluate how the publication of the law, which it said was lawful, affects the lawsuit that prompted the restraining order. The bureau's action did not require anything to be done by La Follette and he was not in violation of the court's order, the DOJ statement said.
The statement did not say whether the action means the law takes effect Saturday.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who filed the lawsuit that led to the order, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Ozanne's lawsuit and two others allege lawmakers broke the state open meetings law by hastily calling a special committee meeting to put the bill in a form that the Senate could pass it without the Democrats who'd fled present.
The new law requires nearly all public sector workers, including teachers, to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut. It also strips them of their ability to collectively bargain for anything except wages no higher than inflation.
Union leaders were outraged with the latest twist in the ongoing saga.
"This is another sign that the governor and Legislature are in a desperate power grab to take away the voice of teachers, support staff, nurses, home health care workers and other public employees," said Mary Bell, president of the statewide teachers' union. "These tactics are not in the Wisconsin tradition of open government and do not represent the will of the people."
Marty Beil, executive director of the state's largest public employee union, said he didn't think the action meant the law was going to take effect.
"The problem is they're (Republicans) the dictator here so we have to go into a court of law and reaffirm it," he said. "This is Scott Fitzgerald and Scott Walker's gulag here. It's craziness. These guys are off the wall. They're drunk with some kind of power or misconception of reality."
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, called the action an "illegal backdoor maneuver."
"This is a dark day for Wisconsin and a travesty to our democracy," he said.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.