By JASON SMATHERS and SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state’s new and contentious collective bargaining law from taking effect, raising the possibility that the Legislature may have to vote again to pass the bill.
Lawmakers had approved Gov. Scott Walker’s measure last week, breaking a three-week stalemate caused by 14 Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois. Demonstrations against the measure, which would strip most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights, grew as large as 85,000 people.
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.
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.”
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. Assistant Attorney General Steve Means said the Justice Department planned to proceed with the appeal process later Friday or early next week.
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.
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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.
Does ding-dong activist Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi know Wisconsin Senate Rule
Recall this shyster Sumi
Long Beach, CA
Senate Rule 93 is Senate procedure.
It does NOT supersede STATE LAW about open meetings.
And the timing provision is notice of a hearing, not notice of a vote.
PS, name calling has no place in civil discussion.
Always good to hear from Orange County Republicans on a Wisconsin matter. The great minds of Orange County that put Bob Dornan in Congress want to reach out and touch us here in Wisconsin.
The problem with this article is that it blindly repeats Republican talking points rather than explaining facts. The current $137 million fiscal year deficit is entirely due to tax cuts passed by the Governor in January. The governor inherited a balanced annual budget and and blew that surplus with tax cuts for rich out-of-state corporations.
Saying that these wage cuts are the result of a surprise budget shortfall is like taking a sledgehammer to the engine on your car and then acting surprised when you have to fix the engine. This is the David Stockman approach to governance. Give away all the government’s money, then shut down government because it is out of money.
The article also talks about the retirement benefit cut as though the talking points were fact. The REASON state employees were’t paying their 5.8% of retirement contributions was because the STATE asked state employees, over a SERIES of budgets and contracts, if it could PLEASE pay that on their behalf in lieu of 8%-10% wage increases many years ago. Why was that a smart deal? Because the state paying that 5.8% (cumulative) to employees pre-tax gave them a benefit equal to the 8% in cash raises they had coming over those years.
The employees couldn’t be taxed on the benefit, so it provided a mechanism for the stage to save 3% on its payroll.
No more. Even if it is smart for the state and the taxpayers, union employees will not trust the state to stand at its word any more.
The bad news for us taxpayers is that in the long run, it will cost us more.
This is a cut in wages that the Governor thought would get some political traction by calling it an unacceptably high benefit.
Non-state employees should know that the employee and employer contribution rate to the retirement trust goes up and down annually. For years, when the stock market did well, the contribution rate was below 5.8%. If State employees had insisted on wages instead of letting management have the deal it requested, the state employees would have had less than 5.8% pulled from their wages all those years. Instead, the state wound up saving a TON of money because instead of paying 5.8% to every employee in wages, it paid 5.2% to the trust fund. The state did this for years, saving state taxpayers a bundle.