By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The incoming leader of Assembly Democrats said it was “startling” that Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker would float the possibility of essentially abolishing state employee unions, and that it appeared he wanted Wisconsin to become a right-to-work state.
Walker suggested Tuesday that eliminating the ability of unions to bargain with the state was one option he was considering as a way to get more concessions from them to cut costs to the state and help balance the budget.
“During the course of a sometimes acrimonious and long campaign of almost a year, this issue never came up,” said state Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha, who will serve as Assembly minority leader starting in January. “Before he’s even taking the oath of office to bring this up is rather startling.”
Walker wants state workers to share the sacrifice needed to balance the budget, said his spokesman Cullen Werwie.
“Walker campaigned for 18 months on controlling state spending, part of which is bringing public sector benefits in line with the private sector,” Werwie said. “He would simply like all options on the table as he works to fulfill the promise he made to taxpayers.”
The conflict over state employee union contracts has exploded in recent days, nearly a month before Walker is sworn in on Jan. 3. Walker argues he wants concessions to start immediately to help the state plug an estimated $3.3 billion two-year budget hole. But Democrats and union leaders say he is attacking their collective bargaining rights.
Walker wants state workers to make a 5 percent contribution to their pensions and increase their share of health care costs to 12 percent, up from between 4 percent and 6 percent currently. He said those moves would save $154 million over just six months.
Starting those savings early in 2011, rather than trying to negotiate them in the contract that begins July 1, would help the state deal with its current budget shortfall of roughly $150 million, Walker said.
Everything from decertifying unions to modifying current laws should be considered, he said at the Tuesday luncheon sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club.
Barca said Wednesday he thought Walker’s comments were a “bombshell” that voters should have been aware of before the election. He called on Walker to better articulate what his vision is for the future of state employees and whether he wants Wisconsin to become a right to work state where labor unions can’t force employees to be members, or to pay dues, as a condition of employment.
“This just raises a new question,” Barca said of Walker’s comments. “To start off this way before he’s even sat down and presented ideas is questionable.”
Walker also drew a predictably angry response from union leaders.
“We certainly prefer negotiation to confrontation,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union. “It’s unfortunate that the next governor seems hell bent on creating a climate of fear, intimidation and hostility.”
State lawmakers are scheduled to receive briefings this week on the deals reached with unions and the state. Some details have already emerged on the deals, which have no pay increases, include the 16 unpaid furlough days which amount to roughly a 3 percent pay cut, and call for higher contributions for pensions and health insurance.
The 22,000 workers in the Wisconsin State Employees Union, the largest state employee union, were voting on their contract deal this week with the results to be released Friday.
Once approved, and cleared by a special legislative committee, the full Legislature could vote on enacting the agreements.
Democrats who currently control the Legislature hope to meet next week to approve the contracts before Walker and Republicans take over. Walker and Republican lawmakers have urged Democrats not to call the lame duck session. But Democrats argue it’s their responsibility to approve the contracts since they were negotiated this year and cover a two-year period that ends June 30.