By Kirsten Adshead Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — As Republican lawmakers prepare to vote on legislation that all but eliminates collective bargaining rights for 175,000 state workers, the question remains: Were Democrats and union supporters comatose?
In announcing the proposal last week, Gov. Scott Walker said, “Unless you were in a coma for the last two years, it was clear where I was headed.”
Political analysts say Walker’s direction was not that clear.
“At least personally I did not see this coming,” University of Wisconsin political scientist David Canon said.
But were there signs, innuendos, hints of things to come?
Could the Democrats have prevented, even slowed down, the assault on one of their core constituency groups?
“Yes, Democrats should have seen this coming,” Canon’s colleague UW political scientist Barry Burden said. “It was part of Walker’s campaign message that he was going to ask state employees to contribute more … and that he was going to tackle unions.”
What has surprised Wisconsinites is how far Walker is willing to go.
His campaign Web site mentions limiting government and placing some restrictions on unions, including restoring the Qualified Economic Offer setting a cap on teachers’ raises, which was initially put in place by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson but removed by Walker’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Yet Walker’s campaign Web site makes no mention of a large-scale diminishment of labor unions’ ability to negotiate contracts.
In fact, the site specifically mentions ways to alter, not eliminate, teacher contract negotiations.
“Mediation and arbitration changes will also be needed to ensure that local economic factors are considered along with other common sense factors when arbitrating teacher contracts,“ the Web site reads
As introduced, the legislation would only allow public employees to negotiate salary. A referendum would be needed to approve any salary hikes above the consumer price index.
Starting April 1, state employees would have to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs, and more than double their contributions toward their health insurance plans. Most pay nothing right now toward their pensions.
Burden said that last September, Walker was joined on the campaign trail by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an outspoken critic of unions who has worked to curtail benefits for that state’s teachers’ unions.
“I knew that he (Walker) would be tackling unions head on,” Burden said. “That was part of the campaign and something he was inspired to do and part of what he thinks made Wisconsin less competitive. But I didn’t think it’d be first thing out of the box.”
Democrats and union leaders have pleaded with Walker to slow down this legislation, to get additional input.
But Walker has responded by saying these changes, including requiring employees to make greater contributions to their pension and health care plans, are necessary and must be made quickly to address the state’s budget deficits — $136 million this year, and an additional $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years.
Democrats did miss an opportunity to at least put a kink in Walker’s plans when, in the final days of the previous legislative session, Democrats tried to approve contracts for 17 public unions that had been working without a contract since 2009.
“That is one thing they (Democrats) could’ve done,” to slow down Walker’s momentum, although it’s unclear if there’d be a long-term impact, Canon said.
Susan Bahnmonthey, a recreational therapist at Central Wisconsin Center and local Service Employees International Union president, rejects the suggestion that the contracts weren’t signed because unions weren’t willing to negotiate.
“There’s never been a request for health insurance contributions from state administration that has not been granted, just what they have asked,” she said. “It has never been negotiated. It has been presented as, this is what we need, and that’s what the collective bargaining has allowed.”
At this point, what Democrats and union supports “coulda, shoulda, woulda” done may be a moot point.
The Joint Committee on Finance, which must approve the bill before the legislation goes to the full Senate and Assembly for a vote, heard testimony Tuesday and was still meeting late Wednesday, considering proposed amendments.
Republican leaders in the Senate and Assembly, though, say they have the votes to pass the bill.
Republicans have a 19-14 edge in the Senate and 60-38-1 majority in the Assembly, so there’s nothing Democrats can do to stop a united GOP.
But even if the bill passes, experts say the issue won’t be dead.
Lawmakers face re-election in 2012, and Walker faces re-election in 2014 if he chooses to run again.
And this is not a vote that will likely be forgotten.
“We support our governor’s efforts,” said Matt Batzel, executive director of American Majority in Wisconsin, which has helped conservative Tea Party members “be better activists.”
“I think the Tea Party is really showing its political muscle that they are a political force, and they are here to stay,” Batzel said.
Others who supported Walker aren’t impressed with him as governor.
Jeff Voss of Mayville works for the Corrections department, and is a lifelong Republican who voted for Walker.
If Walker’s proposal goes through, Voss said, “I will never vote Republican (again), never, never.”
“I know a lot of my union brothers and sisters feel the same way,” Voss said.