Wis. budget panel targets police, fire benefits

Wisconsin's Republican lawmakers re-opened the fight over collective bargaining rights Friday, proposing new police and firefighters pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits.

The change, approved by the Republican-controlled budget committee on an 11-4 party line vote, would force some police and firefighters to make the same contributions toward their benefits as other public workers under a bill pushed by Gov. Scott Walker and passed by the Legislature in March.

Police and firefighters were exempt from that bill, which is now tied up in the courts.

The measure, which also took away nearly all collective bargaining rights from most public workers, was voided by a circuit court judge last month and hasn't taken effect. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Monday as to whether it should take the case and allow the law to be enacted.

The Legislature is also considering passing the law again as part of the budget in case the court fails to act or strikes down the law.

The change added to the budget Friday by the Joint Finance Committee deals only with police and firefighters. It would force new hires to pay 5.8 percent of their pension benefits and 12 percent of their health care costs, just like other public workers under the bill passed earlier.

It would also forbid collective bargaining on the design and choice of health insurance coverage plans for police and firefighters, although the cost could still be negotiated.

Committee co-chair Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the measure gives local governments "reasonable tools" to help save money.

Democrats on the budget committee blasted the move.

"Police and fire have been expecting this assault," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar. "They knew it was coming. They don't deserve it. And it defies common sense."

Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, predicted the move would energize the public again. During the height of the fight over the collective bargaining bill, tens of thousands of people marched on the Capitol for weeks in an ultimately vain attempt to block the bill's passage.

Dozens of protesters attended the committee's meeting as it began Thursday evening, and police removed more than two dozen for shouting at lawmakers and disrupting the process. The collective bargaining changes didn't come up for consideration until five hours later, shortly after midnight, when the room was nearly empty.

"For you to slip this through at whatever time it is, it's disgusting, it's union busting, whatever chant you want to yell," Grigsby said. "It's sickening."

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state's largest police union, issued a statement saying police departments will suffer.

Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin union, said he expected Republicans would eventually force firefighters to make the same concessions as other public workers. But he said allowing the union to collectively bargain health care and pension contributions could result in savings for local governments.

"We like to do things at the bargaining table and we believe in that process," Mitchell said. "It's a hostile environment at the Capitol. They're taking away ... different things from people who have had it for years. It's unfortunate to see our state in the position that it's in."

David Seager, Jr., president of the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association union, which endorsed Walker during his run for governor, said he hadn't seen the provision and declined comment.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie wouldn't say whether the governor supported the move.

The Legislature is expected to debate the proposed budget later this month. The spending plan must pass both the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly and be signed by Walker before it takes effect.


Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Madison contributed to this report.