Wisconsin Governor Releases 'Reform' Budget as Stalemate Continues
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker unveiled Tuesday the rest of his two-year spending plan that has already gripped the nation's attention with its explosive proposal to take nearly all collective bargaining rights away from most public workers.
With the union rights proposal stuck in a legislative stalemate thanks to the state Senate's runaway Democrats, the Republican governor forged ahead with the release of his spending plan that includes major cuts to schools and local governments to help close a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
"This is a reform budget," Walker said in the state Assembly chamber as protesters banged on drums and screamed on the floor below where he was speaking. "It is about getting Wisconsin working again -- and to make that happen, we need a balanced budget that works -- and an environment where the private sector can create 250,000 jobs over the next four years."
Assembly Democrats did not stand to greet or applaud Walker as he entered the chamber and Senate Democrats remain out of state in protest over his bill.
Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he met secretly Monday with some of the 14 Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois to avoid voting on the bill. Fitzgerald said no agreement was reached about returning during the two-hour meeting, but added that he expects talks to continue.
On Tuesday, a Dane County judge ordered Wisconsin officials to open the Capitol to all members of the public during normal business hours. 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.
Meanwhile, Democracy for America, the political action committee founded by Howard Dean and led by his brother, is attempting to raise $150,000 in support of the 14 Senate Democrats by asking donors for contributions of $14. The group said it has raised $5,269 so far.
"Similar attacks on unions are being planned in Ohio, New Jersey, and at least 10 more states," the group says in a fundraising e-mail. "How we win -- if we win - may determine whether those attacks go forward.We have a chance to stop them all right here, right now. D.O.A."
Walker says if the Democrats don't return soon, thousands of teachers and state employees could be laid off in order for his budget to balance. Schools last week started putting teachers on notice that their contracts may not be renewed for next year given the budget uncertainty.
Walker is proposing cutting education aid by about $900 million, or 9 percent statewide.
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.
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.
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.
Walker announced 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.
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 than average 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 as it pertains to wage increases that don't go above the rate of inflation.
State 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.
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.
Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of almost two to one -- 60 percent to 33 percent -- according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.