MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A week ago, Wisconsin Republicans thought they’d won the fight over the state’s polarizing union rights bill. They’d weathered massive protests, outfoxed Senate Democrats who fled the state and gotten around a restraining order blocking the law by having an obscure state agency publish it. They even started preparations to pull money from public workers’ paychecks.
But the victory was short-lived. A judge ruled Friday that the restraining order will stay in place for at least two months she while considers whether Republicans passed the law illegally. It was the second blow to Republicans in as many days after the same judge declared Thursday that the law hadn’t been properly published and wasn’t in effect as they claimed.
Republicans now must either wait for the case to wind its way through the courts or pass the law again to get around complaints it wasn’t done properly the first time. One GOP leader said Friday he didn’t see much point in that.
“We passed the law correctly, legally the first time,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Passing the law correctly and legally a second or third time wouldn’t change anything. It certainly wouldn’t stop another activist judge and (a) room full of lawyers from trying to start this merry-go-round all over again.”
The law would force public employees to pay more for their health care and pension benefits, which amounts to an 8 percent pay cut. It also would eliminate their ability to collectively bargain anything except wage increases no higher than inflation.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said the law is needed to help schools and local governments deal with cuts in state funding he expects to make to address an estimated $3.6 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget. His spokesman referred questions Friday to state Department of Administration officials, who declined to comment.
Democrats have said the bill is meant to weaken the public employee unions that have been some of their strongest campaign supporters. Its introduction in mid-February set off a month of protests that drew up to 85,000 people to the state Capitol and sent Senate Democrats scurrying to Illinois to block a vote in that chamber.
Republicans eventually got around the Democrats’ boycott by removing fiscal provisions from the bill so it could be passed with fewer senators present.
Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi has been considering a lawsuit that claims Republican lawmakers violated the state’s opening meetings law when they met to change the bill. The lawsuit filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne says the state’s open meetings law requires 24 hours notice of a meeting but Republicans provided barely two. Republican legislative leaders say proper notice was given under Senate rules.
Sumi heard testimony Friday from people who said they heard about the meeting only minutes before it began. They said they arrived to find long lines at the Capitol’s entrances and by the time they reached the room where the meeting was held, police wouldn’t allow them in.
Rich Judge, chief of staff for Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, testified that someone dropped off a petition at Barca’s office the night of the meeting that was signed by nearly 3,000 people who claimed they had been denied access.
Brian Gleason of Madison testified he reached the Senate parlor, where the committee hearing was being held, about 20 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. He found a crowd of about 150 people and a line of police standing shoulder to shoulder denying access.
“Frankly, I was angry,” he said. “At that point, the train going into the Senate parlor was already closed to me.”
Sumi gave the attorneys until May 23 to make additional arguments, delaying a decision for nearly two months and possibly longer. Even when she does rule, one side or the other is likely to appeal in an attempt to get the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The state has already appealed her restraining order to the high court, but it has not said whether it will hear the case and is under no deadline to do so.
Two other, separate lawsuits also have been filed, which could further drag out the matter.
Anger over the bill also has prompted recall efforts against 16 state senators, including eight from each party. On Friday, Democrats announced they had collected enough signatures for a recall election against one of the Republicans.