By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker refused to back down on his plan to take away nearly all collective bargaining rights from most public workers and force them to pay more for their benefits, despite news Wednesday that the state’s budget is in better shape than previously expected.
Walker pushed for the collective bargaining concessions as a way to help address the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall. But on Wednesday, a new economic forecast said the state will receive $636 million more in tax collections than expected when Walker unveiled his plan — almost double what would be saved through forcing workers to pay more for health and insurance benefits.
The Republican governor also refused to budge on his proposed cuts to schools and local governments, which total about $1 billion over the next two years.
The best way to use the new money this year would be to repay what is owed to the state of Minnesota under a tax reciprocity deal, start refunding the state’s patients’ compensation fund as a court has ordered, and pay off other debt, Walker and legislative leaders said.
“We need to pay off those bills right away and other bills that are on the horizon,” Walker said. “We’re going to focus on the next generation, not just the next election.”
No matter the spin, the more positive economic forecast delivered by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau will almost certainly increase the pressure on Walker and the Legislature to rethink some of the most dramatic cuts in the governor’s budget.
Those include $1 billion in cuts to schools and local governments, a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System, and changes to the popular SeniorCare prescription drug program.
Democrats said the priority should be reducing the education cuts.
“It is criminal to not let that be the first priority,” said Rep. Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat from Milwaukee who is on the budget committee.
Republican legislative leaders sought to dampen enthusiasm over the improved budget forecast.
“This is not a whirlwind of new money,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the budget committee. The money could be used to “smooth out the edges” of Walker’s budget, said co-chair Rep. Robin Vos, adding that no decision on how to spend it has been made yet.
Republicans have been critical of Walker’s proposals to cut money for local recycling programs and require participants in the popular SeniorCare prescription drug program to first be enrolled in Medicare Part D as a cost-savings move. The new money could be used to “work around” those proposals, Vos said.
Using the money to pay off the state’s debt immediately, as Walker and Republicans said they wanted to do, would be a “huge mistake,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca. With signs that the economy is improving, the money should be used to both lessen education cuts and help dislocated workers and other economic development initiatives, he said.
As for the union concessions, Walker and Republican legislative leaders said those are as much about long-term reform as they are balancing the current budget. Darling and Vos said they remained committed to enacting the collective bargaining changes as a part of Walker’s budget if the courts have not allowed the law to go into effect by the end of June.
“It’s a very pivotal part of going forward,” Darling said.
Union leaders agreed to the concessions during the battle over enacting the law in February, saying they would accept them if they could retain their other bargaining rights. The law passed by the Legislature, as proposed by Walker, imposes the concessions at the same time it takes away workers’ rights to collectively bargain over anything except base wages no higher than inflation.
The concessions amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average. When Walker unveiled the plan in February, he called for it to take effect in April which would have resulted in $30 million in savings by the end of the fiscal year in July. However, the law was challenged after it passed and a judge has put it on hold.
As written, the law calls for taking the money out of employees’ paychecks retroactively in order to see the savings by July 1.
But in light of the more positive revenue projection, which calls for an influx of $233 million by July, Walker said the union cuts may not take effect until July.