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Court says police can negotiate deductibles (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s public union restrictions don’t prevent Eau Claire County Sheriff’s deputies from negotiating over their share of health care deductibles, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

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 the law went into effect.

The law didn’t extend to public safety workers, but Republicans added provisions in the 2011-13 state budget that blocked police and firefighters from having any say in the design of their health insurance. The 1st District Court of Appeals and the 3rd District Court of Appeals upheld the provisions in separate decisions earlier this year.

The Eau Claire County deputies filed a lawsuit last year alleging they can still negotiate over the county’s contributions to the deputies’ deductible costs.

Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled in October 2012 that deductible contributions are still open for negotiation. The 4th District Court of Appeals upheld Colas’ decision, ruling that legislators didn’t refer to who has to pay what share of deductibles in the provisions.

Jim Palmer is the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which is representing the Eau Claire County deputies. He called the appellate ruling a victory but said he anticipates state attorneys will appeal to the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservative justices.

The state Justice Department is handling the case on behalf of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, the agency that administers public employees. DOJ Executive Assistant Dean Stensberg said in an email to The Associated Press that the agency is reviewing the ruling and “will decide on an appropriate course of action.

Peter Davis, an attorney with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, the state agency that handles public employees, said in an email to the AP that he had no comment beyond saying WERC will meet “in the near future” to decide whether to ask the Supreme Court to take the case.

Eau Claire County is defending the budget provisions alongside the state. The county’s attorney didn’t immediately return a message.

Republicans inserted language into the 2013-15 budget clarifying that the only element of health insurance plans public safety workers can negotiate is premiums. That means the ultimate outcome of the Eau Claire case likely will affect only a handful of public safety unions that didn’t agree on contracts before the current budget took effect, Palmer said.

The Supreme Court is weighing a lawsuit to challenge whether Walker’s original restrictions apply to local school and municipal employees.

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