MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin judge on Thursday did what thousands of pro-union protesters and boycotting Democratic lawmakers couldn't, halting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plans – at least temporarily – to cut most public workers' pay and strip them of most of their union rights.
Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi issued a declaration stating in no uncertain terms that the collective bargaining law that led to weeks of large protests at the state Capitol had not taken effect, contradicting Republican arguments that it had because a state office published it online. Hours later, Walker said his administration would comply, despite misgivings about the order.
"In my mind it's not a matter of if the law goes back (into effect), it's just a matter of when," Walker said.
Democrats and union leaders said Sumi's declaration showed the arrogance that Walker and his allies, including top aide, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, have shown in trying to push through the polarizing law.
"Mr. Walker and Mr. Huebsch chose to ignore her warning that they were jeopardizing the finances and stability of state government, apparently believing they are above the law. This morning with her added order she has taken away their last excuse," Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca said.
Republicans had bulldozed through every attempt to stop the law, including the ear-splitting protests, the Senate Democrats' attempt to prevent a vote by fleeing the state, and an earlier order from Sumi meant to stop its implementation while she considered a challenge to its legitimacy. But Sumi's declaration on Thursday put Walker and his legislative allies on the defensive, leaving them to decide between waiting for the legal challenge to be resolved and trying to pass the measure again.
The Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly have said they don't plan to try passing the bill again after the Legislature resumes its session on Tuesday, but in a saga that has already included several strange twists, a change of heart wouldn't be surprising.
Re-introducing the measure would almost certainly lead to more demonstrations and Democratic filibusters.
Andrew Welhouse, a spokesman for Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said in a statement Thursday that the Republicans believe the bill was properly passed and that it did take effect after it was published online. He echoed Fitzgerald's claim earlier this week that Sumi is improperly interfering with state lawmakers' business.
Both sides expect that the law will ultimately end up before the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court, where Republicans are confident they will prevail.
The law would require almost all public sector workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut. It would also eliminate their ability to collectively bargain almost all their work conditions, from hours to vacations. They would still be allowed to negotiate on wages.
Walker has said the bill is needed to help shore up a $137 million shortfall in the state's current budget and, down the road, give local governments the flexibility to deal with their workers while absorbing deep cuts in state aid.
Democrats, though, see the attack on collective bargaining as a political attempt to severely weaken the unions, which have traditionally backed their party.
There are three pending lawsuits challenging the statute, including the one before Sumi that was brought by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. He contends that Republican legislative leaders violated the state's open meetings law in the run-up to a vote on the plan.
Sumi issued an order blocking Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law, typically the last step before it can take effect, while she considered the case.
But Republicans persuaded the Legislative Reference Bureau to post the law online last Friday. They argued the law took effect as a result and began preparations to start deducting money from state workers' salaries, beginning with their April 21 paychecks.
Sumi is expected to take more testimony during a hearing in Ozanne's lawsuit on Friday.
Under the contested law, the higher pension and health plan deductions would cost affected workers $30 million between its implementation and June 30, even if the law is delayed. Walker's administration planned to impose the deductions during the current pay period for paychecks that go out April 21.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.