By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court said Wednesday it would hear arguments in June over whether a judge had the authority to block implementation of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal taking away collective bargaining rights from nearly all state workers.
The court asked both sides of a lawsuit challenging the bill to submit arguments by May 18 explaining why the justices should take the case and, at the same time, why it should either undo or uphold the lower court’s action. Oral arguments were set for June 6.
Republican legislative leaders said earlier Wednesday that if the courts have not ruled on the legality of the collective bargaining bill passed earlier this year by early June, it will be added into the state budget by the Joint Finance Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald both told The Associated Press that it would make the most sense for the committee to add the language into the budget before it comes up for debate before the full Legislature.
However, both Fitzgeralds are hoping the courts rule that the bill passed in March is legal and can take effect so further legislative action isn’t necessary. The court’s order doesn’t change Scott Fitzgerald’s position that he hopes the issue gets resolved by the Supreme Court before it would have to be put into the budget, said his spokesman Andrew Welhouse. A spokesman for Jeff Fitzgerald didn’t immediately return a message.
Walker supports putting the issue in the budget if the courts haven’t ruled by the time that comes to the Legislature for a vote.
The last time the Legislature took up the issue, tens of thousands of protesters descended on Madison in a vain attempt to get them to reject Walker’s proposal. The protests, which grew to as large as 85,000 people, lasted for weeks and made Wisconsin the center of the national debate over union rights.
“I would hope they would get the message that the public isn’t behind them,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha. “If they’re going to try to put this back in the budget, through whatever mechanism, I think it’s a mistake.”
Scott Fitzgerald said voting again on the issue may attract protesters back to the Capitol, but it won’t change the votes of Republicans who supported the proposal before.
“It would be political suicide to switch your vote on that bill,” he said.
Walker’s proposal called for state workers to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, resulting in a savings to the state of $330 million through mid-2013, but also took away their right to collectively bargain over anything except base wages. Police and firefighters were exempt.
Walker was counting on the savings to help blunt the impact of more than $1 billion in aid cuts to schools and local governments he’s calling for in his two-year budget that takes effect in July. The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee is currently tweaking that plan, which it hopes to have ready for the full Legislature to vote on in mid-June.
Lawmakers and Walker have said for weeks that they would support putting the collective bargaining restrictions into the budget if the courts hadn’t ruled, but it was unclear how they planned to do it.
Any vote by the Joint Finance Committee to add in the language would mean there will be several days, and possibly weeks, before it would come up for votes in the Senate and Assembly. Another option would be to have it added as an amendment to the budget during floor debate, something the Fitzgeralds rejected Wednesday in favor of the committee taking the action first.
“I don’t think it should come for that, but that’s not for me to decide,” Scott Fitzgerald said. “I’m hoping that the Supreme Court does take it up soon.”
Co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Rep. Robin Vos of Caledonia, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The process of how the collective bargaining language may be put into the budget is important because it was the process of passing the bill the first time around that generated the lawsuits that have so far kept the law from taking effect.
In order to pass the bill in March, the Senate called a special committee meeting with roughly two hours’ notice so it could amend the bill to take out spending items that required a higher quorum to be present.
The Senate couldn’t meet the higher 20-member quorum because all 14 Democrats had fled to Illinois in protest.
Once the bill was amended, the Senate passed it and the Assembly followed suit the next day. The Assembly had previously passed the more expansive version of the bill following a 61-hour filibuster by Democrats. Walker signed the stripped-down version into law on March 11.
But Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi put enactment of the law on hold while she determines whether the open meetings law was violated since just two hours’ notice was given of the meeting that changed the bill, instead of the usual 24 hours’ notice. The lawsuit filed by Democratic Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne also argues that the bill passed illegally because it should have been subject to the higher quorum requirement.
Sumi isn’t likely to rule until at least after May 23, the last deadline for filings in the case. Sumi said earlier that the lawsuits could be resolved if the Legislature simply passed the bill again, something lawmakers have been hesitant to do hoping the Supreme Court would rule in their favor first.
The state Justice Department asked the Supreme Court in April to take the case from Sumi. The agency wants the court to lift Sumi’s injunction while the justices consider the case and ultimately rule that she had no authority to block the law from taking effect.
While the Supreme Court didn’t say in its order Wednesday that it would take the case, it asked both sides to respond to the substance of the arguments made by the Justice Department.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.