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Analysis: Gambits abound in Wisconsin union fight

Associated Press

Protesters march around the the state Capitol in Madison Saturday. Wisconsin Republicans insist that the anti-union law that sparked weeks of protests at the state Capitol and that is being challenged in court takes effect Saturday because a state office decided to post it online. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans were accustomed to getting what they wanted after the election put Scott Walker in the governor’s office and flipped legislative control to the GOP, even gaining some Democratic support for a series of economic measures in his first weeks in office. Then they took on unions.

Uproar was swift and furious when Walker unveiled his plan to take away nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights, drawing tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol and sending Senate Democrats running away from it to stall further action.

Delayed but not deterred, GOP leaders found a legislative workaround and passed the measure without even needing the Democrats to be in the state. The move brought quick court action, and a temporary restraining order meant to stop the plan from becoming law while a judge decides whether steps taken to get it approved were legal.

But the GOP may have outsmarted the plan’s opponents again.

On Friday, in a move Democrats and unions decried as an end-run around the court order barring implementation, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald asked the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau to publish the law. Publication typically means a law takes effect.

If the law is in effect, the question before the courts would shift from attempting to block it to rescinding it. And the implementation date is significant because the law doesn’t apply to unions that have existing contracts.

Those without contracts once the law takes effect cannot enter into new agreements.

Fitzgerald defended himself against accusations he has thumbed his nose at the judiciary in a move that appeared to run afoul of the temporary restraining order. He said going to the Reference Bureau was legal because the court order only specifically barred the secretary of state from taking action.

Even the Reference Bureau says its move does not put the law into effect. But Fitzgerald insists the bureau’s posting on the Legislature’s website Friday has the same effect as the secretary of state publishing it — meaning the law took effect Saturday.

Fitzgerald said he didn’t consult with Walker about the move.

“It is not the usual path, I admit that,” he said. “Clearly we’re in this uncharted territory again where we’d like it to be behind us so we can move forward with the budget.”

Others doubt the motivations.

“It seems to me they must be just offended that their power is questioned by anybody,” said Madison attorney Lester Pines, who plans to file his own lawsuit challenging the law on Monday.

Democrats and unions, meanwhile, are flabbergasted.

“Their actions continue to show a disregard not only for people’s rights and open government, but also the authority of the courts,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller.

Fitzgerald said he’s only seeking finality and resolution so local governments have certainty in knowing what the law is as they proceed with making budget decisions.

The law takes away the ability of teacher and other public sector unions from collectively bargaining for anything other than wage increases no greater than inflation. It also forces them to pay more for health insurance and pensions, amounting to an 8 percent pay cut on average.

The concessions are expected to save local governments about $330 million by mid-2013 and without those taking effect it will be much more difficult to absorb more than $1 billion in other cuts Walker is proposing in his pending two-year budget plan.

Walker spokesmen did not return messages Saturday seeking comment.

Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said Saturday that he believed the law was now in place. He said he’d begin implementing it, just as the department was required to do after any bill was lawfully published.

“We are mindful that this act is continuing to be litigated, and we will continue to be responsive to the courts as the law begins to be applied,” he said in a statement.

The head of the Reference Bureau and one of the Legislature’s nonpartisan attorneys both said that despite Fitzgerald’s insistence, the law is not in effect until Secretary of State Doug La Follette acts.

The bill passed on March 10 and Walker signed it the next day, after less than 10 weeks on the job. Under normal circumstances, the law would take effect within the next 10 business days. But a judge issued a temporary restraining order on March 18 preventing La Follette from publishing it.

That order came in response to a complaint filed by the Democratic Dane County district attorney. He alleged the state open meetings law was violated when a special legislative committee met with less than two hours’ notice March 9 to put the bill into the necessary form so it could pass the Senate without any of the 14 AWOL Democratic senators present.

The state appealed and an appeals court earlier this week asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case. It has yet to say whether it will.

La Follette remained adamant Saturday that the law is not in effect until he orders it published and he will not take any action because he remains under the restraining order.

“I did not violate the restraining order,” La Follette said.

The latest action didn’t spur any massive protests in the hours that followed it like other action had last month that motivated demonstrations of more than 85,000 people.

A couple hundred protesters did return to the Capitol on Saturday morning, including one man who stood outside Fitzgerald’s office and repeatedly shouted, “I am the Senate majority leader and I am czar! You will do as I say! I am above the law!”

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