Judge Blocks Contentious Wisconsin Union Law
The month-long saga over Gov. Scott Walker's plan to drastically curb collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin took a turn Friday that could force a dramatic rebooting of the entire legislative process.
A judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect, raising the possibility that the Legislature may have to vote again to pass the bill that attracted protests as large as 85,000 people, motivated Senate Democrats to escape to Illinois for three weeks and made Wisconsin the focus of the national fight over union rights.
But Walker's spokesman and Republican legislative leaders indicated they would press on with the court battle rather than consider passing the bill again.
"We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that today's ruling was a significant overreach," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said in a joint statement. "We highly doubt a Dane County judge has the authority to tell the Legislature how to carry out its constitutional duty."
Dane County District Judge Maryann Sumi granted the temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by the local Democratic district attorney, alleging that Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings law by hastily convening a special committee before the Senate passed the bill.
Sumi said her ruling would not prevent the Legislature from reconvening the committee with proper notice and passing the bill again.
In addition to restricting the bargaining rights, the law would require most public workers in the state to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, changes that will amount on average to an 8 percent pay cut. Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie was confident the bill would become law in the near future.
"This legislation is still working through the legal process," Werwie said.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the decision will be appealed because the Legislature and the governor, not a judge, are responsible for enacting laws and can't be blocked in a dispute over the procedures under which a law is passed. His spokesman Bill Cosh said an appeal would be filed Monday.
Even if the Legislature is forced to come back and take up the bill again, at least one Senate Democrat will be there. Sen. Tim Cullen said he would not leave the state again.
"I think that does great damage to the institution," Cullen said. "I have no regrets about doing it once, but that was in extraordinary times to try to slow the bill down."
The Senate couldn't pass the bill in its original form without at least one Democrat to meet a 20-member quorum requirement for measures that spend money. With the Democrats in Illinois and refusing to return after three weeks away, Republicans convened a special committee last Wednesday to remove the spending items. The bill then passed with no Democrats present.
That move is being challenged in another lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who argues that the bill as passed still should have required the 20-member quorum. A hearing on that was set for April 12.
Opponents of the law were hopeful the judge's ruling temporarily blocking enactment of the law would lead to concessions.
"I would hope the Republicans would take this as an opportunity to sit down with Democrats and negotiate a proposal we could all get behind," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
The head of the state's largest teachers union said the Legislature should use this as a chance to listen to opponents of the measure, not vote to pass the same bill again.
"Wisconsin's educators call upon the Legislature to take this as a clear signal that Wisconsinites will not tolerate backroom deals and political power plays when it comes to our public schools and other valued services," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Marty Beil, director of the state's largest public employee union, said in a statement, "We are gratified to see some of our so-called `leaders' finally held accountable for their illegal actions."
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed the lawsuit this week alleging the open meetings law was violated because 24 hours' notice wasn't given for a meeting of the special legislative committee convened to amend the bill.
Justice Department attorneys argued that notice on a bulletin board posted about two hours before the committee meeting was to start last Wednesday was sufficient under rules of the Senate.
The judge said DOJ couldn't show the committee was exempt from the 24-hour notice requirement. She said Ozanne could ultimately win the case and ordered Secretary of State Doug La Follette to hold off on publishing the law - the last step before it can take effect. La Follette had planned to publish the law on March 25.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha said the ruling was a move in the right direction.
"I'm very pleased," Barca said. "As you know, I felt from the moment they called this that this would be a violation of open meetings law. This is an important first step in this regard."
The bill was part of Walker's solution for plugging a $137 million state budget shortfall. A part of the measure would require state workers to increase their health insurance and pension contributions to save the state $30 million by July 1. Other parts of Walker's original proposal to address the budget shortfall were removed before the bill passed last week. The Legislature planned to take those up later.