Key questions surrounding Wisconsin union fight

Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers, rally at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, March 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

March 10, 2011 1:42:12 PM PST
Some key questions surrounding the Senate passage of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to take away the union rights of most public workers:


Q: I thought the bill couldn't be passed unless the Democrats were present to provide a quorum. What happened?

A: The Democrats must be present to vote on any bill that spends money. But before the Senate passed the bill, a special committee removed the spending measures, including a plan to restructure debt and a $19 million payment to the prison system.


Q: So does that mean Walker got everything he wanted?

A: No, but the governor succeeded in winning passage of the collective bargaining provisions that attracted the most attention and the largest protests. The final version of the bill would:

- Remove collective bargaining rights for most public workers, including teachers, starting in July. Workers could no longer bargain over benefits, vacations and workplace safety. Police officers and firefighters would be exempt.

- Require unions to hold a vote every year to stay in existence.

- Make the payment of union dues voluntary.

- Require state workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance costs. Those changes would amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average, starting in April.

- Give broad authority to Walker's administration to make cuts and other changes to Medicaid programs benefiting the poor, disabled and elderly without legislative approval and regardless of current law.


Q: If most collective bargaining ends, how will employees seek pay increases to keep up with the cost of living?

A: Unions would still be authorized to seek higher pay but only up to the rate of inflation, unless approved by referendum. It's not clear yet whether employees would get that rate automatically or if unions would have to negotiate for it every year.


Q: Why didn't Republicans use this approach to force the bill through sooner?

A: That's a question only Republicans can answer, and they left the Capitol in a hurry after the Senate vote Wednesday night. In prepared statements, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the decision was made because he determined that the missing 14 Senate Democrats were no longer interested in negotiating. Democrats insisted they were willing to talk but complained the GOP was not responsive.


Q: Does the bill solve the state's $137 million budget deficit?

A: It sets the stage to balance the budget, but the parts of the bill that were removed are still needed to fulfill Walker's plan. And to get that done, at least one Senate Democrat needs to be present.


Q: So when the Democrats come back to the Capitol, what's to stop the Republicans from passing almost anything they want?

A: Nothing, that's why the Democrats fled to Illinois.


Q: When are the Democrats coming back?

A: Sen. Jim Holperin said Democrats were returning to the state Thursday, but they wouldn't return to the Capitol because the Senate was not in session. It was not scheduled to be back in session until April 5.


Q: Democrats said the open meetings law was violated. Do they have a strong case?

A: The conference committee that made the changes to Walker's proposal met less than two hours after the Senate voted to create the panel. Wisconsin law normally requires at least 24 hours' notice before a public meeting. However, if that is impossible or impractical, a shorter notice may be given - no less than two hours.

Senate Clerk Rob Marchant said Senate rules require only posting a notice on a legislative bulletin board. Despite that rule, he said, the Senate gave two hours' notice "as a courtesy," posting an advisory at 4:10 p.m. ahead of a 6 p.m. meeting.

Madison attorney Robert Dreps, an open records and meeting law specialist, said the Senate action suggests that lawmakers don't need to follow the same law that applies to every other governmental body in Wisconsin. He said the Senate also failed to show that there was an emergency sufficient to ignore the 24-hour rule.

The Dane County executive, the city of Madison and a Democratic state representative have filed complaints with the state attorney general and the county district attorney.