By M.D. Kittle |Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — To most conservatives with a penchant for reining in public-sector spending, Scott Walker is the man.
The Republican governor picked up a lot of conservative street cred at home and across the country for his Act 10, the law that gutted collective bargaining for most unionized public employees, limiting wage negotiations to the rate of inflation and demanding government workers chip in 5.8 percent of their paychecks to their pensions.
By many estimates, Act 10 garnered taxpayer savings well north of $1 billion. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau report projected the law’s pension contribution provision alone would save the state’s school districts more than $567 million over 2011-12 biennium, not including health insurance savings.
“This was a huge leap to take. It was the most politically courageous move to take on the subject of pension reform anywhere to date,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director of Taxpayers United of America, a Chicago-based pension reform advocacy group.
Walker’s bold pension reforms did not extend to public safety employees in the state — local police, firefighters and state troopers in particular. Those first responders effectively got a pass on Act 10, exempted from the pension clause, among other provisions.
And that omission has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The Fiscal Bureau’s projections on Act 10 also looked at the amount local “protective occupation employees” would have paid over the past two years, had they been required to contribute to their pensions. The analysis also attempted to capture the costs associated with future public safety employee contracts, subject to change because of the status quo collective bargaining powers of those unions.
Including firefighters in special districts, the analysis projected the state would miss out on at least $62.7 million in savings. That’s money that could have gone to put more first responders on the street, perhaps making furloughs and job cuts unnecessary. Or the money could go back to the taxpayer.
The fiscal bureau analysis did not include state protective occupation employees, such as state troopers and motor safety inspectors.
University of Wisconsin police, conservation wardens, special criminal investigators for the state Department of Justice, for instance, did not receive dispensation from Walker and majority Republicans in Act 10.
Democrats and unions have hammered the governor on what they saw as a thinly veiled quid pro quo, accusing Walker of rewarding the police and fire unions that supported then-candidate Walker in his 2010 run for governor.
“Not only have Scott Walker and his deep-pocketed corporate allies sought to silence the voices of Wisconsin workers, they have also violated those workers’ constitutional rights,” Phil Neuenfeldt, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO said in a statement at the time. “Scott Walker has created two classes of public sector workers and that is unconstitutional. When a legislature discriminates among classes of workers, especially when doing so has more to do with political payback than with any legitimate reasoning, the law has been violated.”
Walker has called the favoritism charge “ridiculous,” and there seems some countering evidence against the unions’ argument. The state’s biggest police and firefighter unions, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, threw their support behind Democrat and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Walker also trounced Barrett in last summer’s gubernatorial recall election, a campaign fueled by union animus over Act 10..
Several unions joined forces in suing Walker and others, arguing Act 10 creates separate classes and that it violates equal-protection and free-speech clauses in the U.S. Constitution.
Walker and his fellow defendants have argued the law’s public safety employee exemption was added to avert a breakdown of “essential public services.”
A recent appeals court decision, on a 2-to-1 ruling, upheld Act 10, although lower courts have sided with the unions and the successful argument of different treatment has put the law in jeopardy.
The governor’s old political foe, Barrett, alluded to the broader problem Tuesday night during a broadcast on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
Barrett, in a heated exchange with Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke about the sheriff’s controversial public service announcement advising citizens to consider arming themselves in these tight budgetary times, acknowledged that the city has to take police off the street to help meet a nearly $30 million contribution to the police pension fund.
“We have three furlough days so that we can make a pension payment of ($29.95 million) for our police and have no layoffs,” Barrett told Morgan.
The city of Milwaukee was scheduled to make that payment, part of about $60 million in pension payments for public employees, on Thursday.
Clarke’s department, forced to cut dozens of law enforcement position due to fiscal pressures, is served by deputies who also are not required to contribute 5.8 percent to their pensions.
“I had to lay off 42 officers last year,” Clarke told Morgan. “On top of that, there was an increasing demand of 911 calls of service going unanswered, not through any fault of the street officers but because they don’t have the proper amount of resources.”
But their pensions are paid.
Wisconsin Reporter has asked Walker’s spokesman Cullen Werwie whether the governor has or would consider ending the exemption. As of this post, Werwie had not responded.
Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]