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Capitol fight overshadows court race

Gov. Scott Walker’s public-employee revolution may cast a long shadow over the spring election for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Justice David Prosser’s re-election bid could be the linchpin in upholding the dramatic changes in the way state and local governments deal with public employees. That is especially true in potential issues involving the Wisconsin Retirement System.

Following the work of a study group, Walker will unveil his ideas for changing the WRS next year. Included in the budget balancing bill he submitted to the Legislature is the creation of a study committee to look at various pension and supplementary health care ideas. That report is due no later than July 1, 2012.

Changes in the retirement system or post-retirement health care certainly will face legal challenges that will wind up before the state Supreme Court.

That court has a 4-3 conservative majority. Prosser, a former Republican speaker of the Assembly, is among the conservative justices. Prosser got 51 percent of the primary vote in last week’s statewide primary.

The challenger is JoAnne Kloppenburg, who received 28 percent of the vote. She has spent 22 years as an assistant attorney general and prosecutor. Her election could put conservatives in the minority.

Business-interest groups realize the importance of the high court election. The conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth already has run an ad backing Prosser’s election.

Walker wants the study group to examine options that affect the initial pensions workers receive from the Wisconsin Retirement System. Current law gives the worker the higher of two approaches: one based on formula, and the other based on the money assigned to an individual’s account.

Don’t be surprised if the committee reports changes could save hundreds of millions of dollars over future decades. The number probably will be too big for Walker to ignore. Changes would guarantee legal challenges that will end up in the state Supreme Court.

State workers are particularly concerned about a benefit they now have to convert their unused sick leave into an account to pay health-insurance premiums for however long the money in their account lasts. The formula multiplies unused sick leave by the employee’s hourly wage rate.

For example, a state employee who retires at an hourly wage of $25 and has 500 hours of accumulated sick leave would have a conversion account of $12,500 to maintain health insurance through the Department of Employee Trust Funds. No other purpose is allowed for the money in the account.

Would Walker go after those already getting WRS pensions? He hasn’t shied away from controversy in his first two months as governor.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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