By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Two Wisconsin appellate courts bolstered portions of Republicans’ contentious collective bargaining restrictions Tuesday, ruling that Milwaukee police can’t negotiate their own health care costs and that a county board legally required elected officials to pay more for their benefits.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed a law through the Legislature two years ago that stripped most public workers of their union rights and required them to contribute about 6 percent of their earnings to their pensions and pay 12 percent of their health insurance costs. State and local governments typically covered most, if not all, of employees’ retirement contributions and health insurance costs before Walker introduced the law.
The law didn’t extend to public safety workers, however. Responding to municipalities’ fears that tensions would rise between police and firefighters and other public workers, Republican lawmakers included language in the 2011-2013 state budget that blocked police and firefighter unions from having any say in the design of their health insurance. Local government officials across the state saw the language as a green light to rework their employees’ health insurance plans unilaterally.
The Milwaukee Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers in that city, filed a lawsuit in September 2011 alleging that the budget language still allows for negotiations on officers’ out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles and co-payments. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Dominic Amato sided with the association, ruling that the city was still obligated to bargain with the union over costs.
The 1st District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed Amato’s decision Tuesday, saying the budget language does indeed block negotiations over costs.
The court noted that the union conceded a municipality is free to design a health care plan unilaterally. It wouldn’t make sense to think the Legislature had granted municipalities the exclusive right to design the plans but still requires collective bargaining on the impact.
MPA attorney Jonathan Cermele had no immediate comment. Thomas Beamish, a city attorney who worked on the case, said he was pleased with the decision.
“We appreciate the unanimous court of appeals recognized the Legislature’s clear decision that police and firefighters must participate in the city’s effort to rein in escalating health care costs,” Beamish said.
Meanwhile, the 3rd District Court of Appeals has been weighing a dispute in Eau Claire County over the higher retirement and health care contributions.
Sheriff Ron Cramer and County Treasurer Larry Lokken filed a lawsuit in 2011 arguing that the county board couldn’t raise their contribution requirements. They maintained that state law prohibits counties from changing elected officials’ compensation during their terms.
Circuit Judge Steven R. Cray ruled in Cramer and Lokken’s favor, but the appeals court unanimously reversed Cray’s decision Tuesday, concluding that the term “compensation” doesn’t include benefits.
Cramer and Lokken’s attorney, Harry Hertel, didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Ryan Billing, an attorney for the county, said he was pleased with the decision.
A Walker spokesman declined comment on Tuesday’s rulings.
A Dane County judge last September struck down Walker’s law as it pertained to school and local government workers. But it’s unclear whether the ruling applies statewide or only in Milwaukee and Madison, the two cities where public workers filed the lawsuit challenging the law.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is appealing the ruling. He asked the 4th District Court of Appeals to stay the Dane County ruling pending a decision, saying he wanted to eliminate confusion about whether the law was in effect statewide, but the court refused.