By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Public employees were reeling Friday trying to figure out what to do after Gov. Scott Walker asked the Legislature to remove nearly all collective bargaining rights for teachers, prison guards and other government workers across Wisconsin.
They don’t have much time to mobilize.
Walker, a Republican who took office in January, is asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to ram the bill through next week, maybe without a public hearing. Walker’s administration sent Republican and Democratic legislative leaders a letter on Friday outlining his proposal but an actual draft of the bill was not yet available.
Walker also sent an e-mail to state workers on Friday morning thanking them for their service and making the case for the cuts.
“We all recognize that these are historic times that require us to rethink how government operates,” Walker said in the e-mail. “I ask that we continue to work together to do what is necessary to bring the state’s spending in line with our taxpayers’ ability to pay.”
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Walker defended the action as necessary to deal with a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall by mid-2013. He wants most of the changes to take effect almost immediately to plug a $137 million shortfall.
Lawmakers have yet to announce whether there will be a hearing to give the public a chance to comment on Walker’s proposal. Democrats and union representatives, largely reacting to media reports, blasted it as a massive, job-killing power grab that would hurt the state’s economy.
“The right to negotiate both wages and benefits through a union is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class,” Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt said in a statement. “Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of hard-working Wisconsinites, we need to come up with a balanced approach that looks at shared sacrifice from everyone.”
The proposal is massive in scope and would present a cultural shift in Wisconsin, which has a long history of organized labor and politically powerful unions that traditionally back the Democrats.
Walker wants to remove all collective bargaining rights, except for salary, for all of the roughly 175,000 public employees starting July 1. Local police, fire and the state patrol would be exempt. Any requests for a salary increase higher than the consumer price index would have to be approved by referendum.
Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the next contract is settled.
Public employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues.
Starting April 1, Walker wants to force state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs and more than double their health insurance contributions. That would generate $30 million this fiscal year.
The bill also would remove the right, granted under former Gov. Jim Doyle, for University of Wisconsin faculty and staff to form unions.
Walker also proposed that his Department of Health Services be given the power to make any changes necessary to save money in Medicaid, without approval by the Legislature and without having to abide by current law governing benefits and programs.
Medicaid is the fourth most expensive budget item, totaling $1.3 billion for the current year, and provides programs for the elderly, low-income, people with disabilities, children, pregnant women and others. It’s projected to have a $153 million shortfall this year, which is driving Walker’s call for immediate budget-balancing action.
Given that Medicaid is a federal-state partnership, it’s hard to know what Walker would intend to do without getting federal waivers, said Robert Kraig, director of consumer advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin.
“The state can’t make Medicaid rules willy-nilly,” Kraig said. “It’s a little hard to ascertain what the implications of this are.”
Walker has called for a study into possible changes to the Wisconsin Retirement System’s defined contribution pension plans and consideration of possible changes to state health insurance plans, including higher deductible options and larger purchasing pools.
The bill also calls for selling off the state’s heating plants, with the money raised helping to balancing the budget.
“This is not a shock,” Walker said in his AP interview. “The shock would be if we didn’t go forward with this.”
While Walker had talked about wanting to force concessions from unions since December, the breadth of his proposal caught union leaders, Democrats and even some Republicans by surprise. Walker unveiled the plans in meetings with Republican leaders, members of his administration and others on Thursday. More meetings and a news conference were planned for Friday.
“This is a shocking development,” said Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, which represents 17,000 workers. “It ends collective bargaining for public employees in our state, after 50 years of management and workers solving problems together.”
Democrats almost certainly will unite against the proposal but are powerless to stop it. Republicans control the Assembly 60-38-1 and the Senate 19-14.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said he was surprised Walker went after unions as aggressively as he did.
“It’s not what I thought he was going to do,” said Olsen, adding he honestly didn’t know how Republicans felt about it.
“They’re still soaking it in,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Thursday when asked if he thought Republicans would approve the plan as proposed.
Walker said the changes are necessary to avoid up to 6,000 state employee layoffs and the removal of more than 200,000 children from the Medicaid program.
Walker said the collective bargaining changes were needed to give local governments and school districts the flexibility to deal with budget cuts he will outline in his two-year budget plan released on Feb. 22. Walker said those cuts will be more than $300 million.