Wisconsin governor halts plans to implement union law

Posted March 31, 2011, at 11:38 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin judge on Thursday did what thousands of pro-union protesters and boycotting Democratic lawmakers couldn’t, forcing Republican Gov. Scott Walker to halt plans to implement a law that would strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights and cut their pay.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi, who had issued an order intended to block implementation of the law while she considered a challenge to its legitimacy and warned of sanctions for noncompliance, amended her order Thursday to clarify that the law had not taken effect, as Republican leaders argued it had.

The governor’s top aide, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, later issued a statement saying Walker would comply with Sumi’s order and halt preparations that were under way to begin deducting money from most public workers’ paychecks, but that the governor’s administration still believes the law took effect after a state office unexpectedly published it online.

 

“While I believe the budget repair bill was legally published and is indeed law, given the most recent court action we will suspend the implementation of it at this time,” Huebsch said.

The law would require most public sector workers to contribute more to their health care and pensions, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut. The measure also strips them of their right to collectively bargain any work conditions except wages.

Walker signed the proposal into law earlier this month after weeks of large pro-union protests in and around the state Capitol and after the Senate’s Democrats fled Wisconsin in an attempt to deny Republicans the quorum needed to vote on the measure.

Several lawsuits challenging the law are pending, including the one before Sumi filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. His lawsuit contends that Republican legislative leaders violated the state’s open meetings law in the run-up to a vote on the plan. Sumi issued an order blocking Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law, typically the last step before it can take effect while she considers the case.

 

But Republicans convinced another state office to publish the law online on Friday and declared the law took effect the following day. The state Department of Administration has begun preparations to start taking the deductions out of state workers’ paychecks.

 

Sumi issued another restraining order on Tuesday after a day of testimony that reiterated her initial order. She warned anyone who violated it would face sanctions.

But state Justice Department attorneys and Huebsch said they didn’t believe that order applied to the Walker administration since it wasn’t named as a defendant in Ozanne’s lawsuit. They continued work to implement the bill.

Early Thursday morning, Sumi added the noneffect declaration to her restraining order clarifying that the law has not been published and is therefore not in effect. She is expected to take more testimony at a hearing Friday.

Ozanne said Thursday that Sumi’s ruling speaks for itself. Justice Department spokesman Bill Cosh had no immediate comment.

A spokesman for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said he had nothing new to say beyond his previous statement that he didn’t believe the judge had the authority to interject herself into the affairs of the Legislature given the separation of powers.

The Legislature was scheduled to be in session Tuesday to pass other parts of Walker’s plan to balance the current year’s budget that faces a $137 million shortfall. There were no immediate plans to take up the collective bargaining piece again. The judge has said lawmakers could avoid the legal fight by passing it a second time, but legislative leaders have said they are confident it was done correctly the first time and it will prevail in court.

The law would require that about $30 million be saved by the state by July 1 through increased pension and health care contributions. If enactment of the law is delayed, the deductions from state workers would have to increase in order to get those savings by that time.

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