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July 26, 2009

Sparks fly over Wisconsin budget's labor-related provisions

Steven Walters & Stacy Forster:

As the dust settles around the new state budget, partisan disagreement continues over the boost that unions - particularly education unions - got by making it easier for them to sign up thousands of new members and by repealing the 3.8% annual limit on teachers' pay raises.

The provisions passed because Democrats, who got control of the Legislature for the first time in 14 years, partnered with Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to advance changes the governor and unions had been pushing for years.

Unions traditionally help elect Democratic politicians. The largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, spent about $2.1 million before last November's elections, with much of that backing Democrats.

Most of the labor-related provisions in the budget were added to provide people with "good, family-supporting jobs," said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), co-chairman of the Legislature's Finance Committee.

"The idea that we're shifting back to the worker, rather than just big business and management, that's part of what Democrats are about," Pocan said.

It also helped that the two top Democratic legislators, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan of Janesville and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker of Weston, are veteran labor leaders.

Sheridan is the former president of a Janesville union for General Motors; Decker was a union bricklayer when he was elected president of the Central Wisconsin Building Trades.

In a statement, Sheridan said Assembly Democrats focused on giving workers struggling through the recession "an opportunity to negotiate for better working circumstances or wages." They also made sure the budget included tax breaks to help businesses create and protect jobs, he said.

Republican leaders say taxpayers will be the ultimate losers, when they must pay public employees higher wages and better benefits.

Republicans also say Doyle and Democratic legislative leaders approved the changes to thank unions for their campaign cash and endorsements before last November's elections. The Democrats also are laying groundwork to win support heading into the 2010 elections, GOP lawmakers say.

One striking example of lobbying effectiveness during challenging economic times: the budget includes a change to arbitration rules between school districts and teacher unions:
To make matters more dire, the long-term legislative proposal specifically exempts school district arbitrations from the requirement that arbitrators consider and give the greatest weight to
revenue limits and local economic conditions. While arbitrators would continue to give these two factors paramount consideration when deciding cases for all other local governments, the importance of fiscal limits and local economic conditions would be specifically diminished for school district arbitration.
This is obviously the kind of thing frequently seen in Washington.... It would be interesting to see the players (and money) behind this legislation. In related local news, the Madison School District and the local teacher union have yet to agree to a new contract. Perhaps this arbitration change plays a role in the process?

Posted by Jim Zellmer at July 26, 2009 7:14 AM
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