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Pension talk mixes with recalls

By Matt Pommer

Late last month, a spokesman said Gov. Scott Walker has “zero plans” to change the Wisconsin Retirement System, which covers more than 500,000 people.

A study of the pension system isn’t due until June 30. But recall elections involving six Republican lawmakers, including Walker, are expected to be held earlier in June.

The early statement is a sign of how close Walker’s recall election may be. The pension involves retirees, active workers and those who have left public employment but have accounts remaining in the WRS.

It covers most state and local workers. Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee have separate programs.

Walker’s campaign office likes to tout his “bold actions” as governor. Changing the public employee pension program would clearly be a bold action.

Thousands of public employees retired in the past 10 months, with many of them worried changes are coming to the WRS. There also are worries the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with a 4-3 conservative majority, would rubber-stamp any pension changes Walker and the Republican-run Legislature would propose.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned budget-balancing pension changes created by a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. It took nine years for the case to get through the court system.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the largest teachers’ union, issued a warning that it fears Walker and other Republicans will make fundamental changes to the WRS.

That’s just politics, retort Walker’s people.

But public employees are rightfully worried about surprise moves, noting that Walker didn’t campaign on collective bargaining changes before introducing them in the Legislature.

Walker’s efforts to avoid concern about any potential pension changes are a sign of how close the public sentiment is on his potential recall. Assorted polling efforts bounce back and forth with the separation being within the statistical margin of error.

Traditionally, the “undecided” vote will split 2-to-1 against an incumbent. But the pollsters are reporting the number of undecided in this gubernatorial recall election seems very small.

Walker should benefit from the upcoming Republican presidential primary in April. The Republican candidates will have glowing words for the governor in their efforts to capture Tea Party voters in the primary.

Recall elections in June will come after college campuses empty for the summer. With a summer tourism season developing, employment numbers ought to look better, and that is to Walker’s benefit. Also, the new voter ID requirements should benefit the governor in the recall election.

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

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