MADISON, Wis. — After focusing for weeks on his proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday presented his full budget – a plan that cuts $1.5 billion in aid to public schools and local government but avoids any tax or fee increases, furloughs or widespread layoffs.
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Walker said the cuts could be paid for in large part by forcing government employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits. And the governor whose cost-cutting ideas have stirred a national debate over public-sector unions gave no indication he would soften his demand to reduce their power at the negotiating table.
"This is a reform budget," Walker told lawmakers inside the Assembly chamber as protesters on the floor below screamed, banged on drums and blew horns. "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."
Walker's legislation has drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol over the last three weeks, and tensions were still evident when Walker outlined the budget during a joint session of the Legislature convened under heavy security. Assembly Democrats refused to stand and greet the governor as he arrived to speak.
"It feels like we're announcing a going-out-of-business sale," said state Rep. Cory Mason, a Democrat from Racine who criticized Walker's proposed cuts to education.
Walker's budget places "the entire burden of Wisconsin's budget shortfall on our children, our most vulnerable citizens in need of health care and long-term care, and our dedicated public employees," said Robert Kraig, director of the consumer advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin.
Doing so is Walker's "own value choice, not an economic necessity forced on him by others," Kraig said.
The governor released his two-year budget in part to support his argument that public-worker concessions are essential to confront a projected $3.6 billion shortfall. His proposal to eliminate most collective bargaining remains in limbo after Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote.
Wisconsin "cannot grow if our people are weighed down paying for a larger and larger government, a government that pays its workers unsustainable benefits that are out of line with the private sector," he said. "We need a leaner and cleaner state government."
By eliminating most collective bargaining, Walker says, state agencies, local governments and school districts will have flexibility to react quickly to the cuts.
Even though Walker isn't ordering immediate layoffs of state workers, his budget will put tremendous pressure on schools and local governments, which will be asked to shoulder huge cuts without raising property taxes to make up the difference.
Walker's budget includes a nearly 9 percent cut in aid to schools, which would amount to a reduction of nearly $900 million. The governor also proposed requiring school districts to reduce their property tax authority by an average of $550 per pupil – a move that makes it more difficult for schools to make up the lost money.
Additionally, cities would get nearly $60 million less in aid, an 8.8 percent cut, while counties would lose more than $36 million, a 24 percent reduction. They would not be allowed to increase property taxes except to account for new construction.
Walker estimates that his controls on property taxes would save $736 over the next two years for the owner of a home valued at the median price of $161,300.
He proposed a $500 million cut to Medicaid, which would be achieved through a number of changes that include increasing co-payments and deductibles and requiring participants in SeniorCare to be enrolled in Medicare Part D, too.
Walker asked for $82 million in tax cuts, including an expanded exclusion for capital gains realized on investments made in Wisconsin-based businesses. The Legislature previously approved more than $117 million in Walker-backed tax cuts that take effect later this year.
The budget also cuts funding at most state agencies, by 10 percent, except for salary and benefits.
He would permanently eliminate 735 positions that have been vacant for more than a year. Some other jobs could be cut, but no widespread layoffs were envisioned. State spending over the next two years would go up a paltry 1.3 percent.
Walker targeted many law changes passed by Democrats in recent years.
He wants to undo changes made by Democrats to allow prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. Instead, Walker would reinstitute a truth-in-sentencing law that he sponsored while a member of the Assembly.
He would no longer allow children of illegal immigrants who attend state universities and colleges to pay in-state tuition.
As expected, Walker proposed removing the flagship Madison campus from the University of Wisconsin system, leaving 12 other four-year campuses and 13 two-year universities. The system has been ordered to study a similar move for the Milwaukee campus.
Over the next several months, the Legislature will review Walker's budget and offer revisions, with the expectation that lawmakers would vote by early summer.
It wasn't clear when Senate Democrats would return to take up his collective bargaining proposal. Walker said in his speech that their inaction could lead to thousands of layoffs in order to balance the budget, but decisions on whether to cut teachers and other local government employees are not up to Walker.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald met Monday in Kenosha with some of the missing Democrats and discussed terms under which they could return. Fitzgerald said they didn't talk about changing the bill, which he said would not be altered.
He would not say who was at the meeting or how many were there, but no agreement was reached.
"We keep taking," Fitzgerald said.
Senate Democrats held their own news conference in Illinois to criticize Walker after his speech. "It's a sad day for our state," said Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay.
Numerous compromises designed to end the stalemate have been floated by unions, Democrats and even a Republican senator, but none has gained traction.
In addition to the bargaining rights changes, the bill designed to fill this year's projected $137 million deficit called for refinancing state debt to save $165 million. But the deadline to get that done was Tuesday.
Walker has threatened to make more cuts after the deadline but has not outlined what those would be.
Polls indicate national public opinion favors unions in the dispute, but Walker has been resolute.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found 42 percent of adults surveyed nationwide sided with the unions and 31 percent sided with Walker. That poll of 1,009 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The latest New York Times-CBS poll found 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. The nationwide telephone poll of 984 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Just a quarter of adults in the poll considered public employees' benefits and pay to be too high, while about the same share believed they are too low. About 36 percent say they are about right.
Majorities oppose cutting public employee benefits or pay in order to reduce state budget deficits or taking away some collective bargaining rights from public employee unions.
Some of the opposition may stem from skepticism about the state government's motivations. Forty-five percent of those who responded to the New York Times-CBS poll believe states want to reduce employee benefits to help ease the deficit, but nearly as many (41 percent) say their aim is to weaken the power of unions.
Both polls were conducted Feb. 24-27.
03/07/2011 5:01 PM EST
The Atlantic reports that at one town hall meeting in Wisconsin, one GOP state senator faced "loud opposition" to a proposed compromise.
03/04/2011 1:04 AM EST
Judge Orders Protesters Out Of Capitol
About 50 pro-union protesters peacefully left the state Capitol late Thursday after a judge ruled they could no longer spend the night to show their opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers.
The judge also ruled the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building.
03/03/2011 5:00 PM EST
Layoff Notices To Come Friday
AP reports that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state employees Friday if his union bill doesn't pass by then:
Walker also said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is negotiating with Democrats who stymied passage of the bill by leaving the state for changes to the proposal that would get them to return. Walker said he won't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.
"I can't take any of that off the table," he said.
03/03/2011 11:16 AM EST
New Research Numbers
HuffPost's Mark Blumenthal writes:
A new survey released this morning by the Pew Research Center is the first to provide a clear before-and-after snapshot of national attitudes toward labor unions in the wake of the ongoing protests and budget conflict in Wisconsin:
The public’s overall views of labor unions have changed little through the lengthy stalemate between Wisconsin’s governor and the state’s public employee unions over collective bargaining rights. About half (47%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions compared with 39% who have an unfavorable opinion. In early February, 45% expressed a favorable opinion of unions and 41% said they had an unfavorable view. However, liberal Democrats and people in union households are more likely to say they have a very favorable opinion of labor unions than they were just weeks ago.
See the Pew Research report for their complete analysis and full results by party, ideology and union membership subgroups. The Pew Center had also conducted an in-depth survey on unions in early February, just before Walker released the budget bill that sparked the protests.
03/02/2011 6:42 PM EST
Man Cited For Unplugging Fox Equipment
The City of Madison has filed a police report charging a 23-year-old man for "disorderly conduct" after he unplugged extension cords from a Fox News vehicle. Read the full report here.
03/02/2011 6:00 PM EST
West Virginia Approves Pay Hikes For Public Workers
Adding another state into the debate on public workers, West Virginia's Herald-Dispatch reports:
West Virginia's public employees would reap pay raises averaging 2 percent this year, with a second year of increases promised to teachers and school workers, under a proposal advanced Wednesday to the state Senate by the House.
But the 78-22 vote reflected GOP-led concerns that increasing state spending threatens a stable budgetary picture that has so far allowed West Virginia to avoid deficits and the painful choices they can force. Foes also contrasted the pay hikes with the state's continuing unemployment woes.
Full story here.
03/02/2011 5:44 PM EST
Update: Ohio Bill Would Jail Striking Librarians
More details have surfaced on Ohio's controversial SB 5, which just passed the state senate.
Senate Bill 5 would prohibit public-employee unions representing teachers, librarians, toll collectors and others from bargaining over health benefits, pensions and working conditions. Under the bill, unions could still negotiate wages, but striking would be prohibited for all public workers, taking away a major bargaining chip. Workers could face a fine of up to $1,000, or 30 days in jail, if they go on strike.
A Twitter campaign, #standupOH, has already mounted. As user @escapetochengdu tweeted, "The bill that just passed Ohio Senate allows the government to jail striking librarians for 30 days. Despicable."
Read the whole Wall Street Journal story here.
03/02/2011 5:25 PM EST
Ohio Senate Passes Controversial Anti-Union Bill
The bill put forth by an Ohio panel earlier today has passed the state senate, TPM reports:
The Ohio State Senate just passed the controversial SB 5, aimed a limiting unionized state employees' ability to collectively bargain or go on strike.
In an indication of how divisive the legislation is in the Buckeye State, the final vote in the Senate was 17-16.
Gov. John Kasich (R) has endorsed the measure and is expected to sign it when it reaches his desk.
Full story here.
03/02/2011 5:18 PM EST
'Runaway Senator' Tourism Campaign Goes Viral
A tourism campaign leveraging the Wisconsin senators who fled to Rockford, Illinois has gone viral. The push, "Hide Away In Rockford," hawks "collectively bargained" rates to some of the town's best tourist attractions.
“Unlike Wisconsin’s state senators, this video isn’t low key; it’s been a real runaway hit," said Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB) President/CEO John Groh of the campaign's success.
Watch the promotional video here.
03/02/2011 4:48 PM EST
Polls: Polarized Wisconsin Leans Toward Unions
HuffPost's resident pollster Mark Blumenthal reports:
WASHINGTON -- A automated telephone poll conducted this week in Wisconsin by the Democratic-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) largely confirms other recent polls showing public support for collective bargaining rights for unions and, by a narrow margin, more opposition than support for the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker (R). Some caution is in order, however, about several vote preference questions included in the same survey.
Despite the ongoing coverage and national interest in the controversy, all of the opinion surveys taken within Wisconsin so far have had sponsors with partisan ties, and each has taken a different approach to the questions asked. Where their questions have been similar, however, we can begin to compare the results.
Read more here.