State budget clashes spread to Indiana, Ohio

As protests continued in Madison, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker warned of dire consequences if lawmakers don't vote soon on his budget plan. Meanwhile, similar battles over union rights are starting to take shape in other states. (Feb. 22)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 12:30 AM

TRENTON, N.J. - The offensive by Republican governors to tackle the power of public employee unions sparked new clashes Tuesday as protesters descended on Ohio's capitol and Democratic lawmakers in Indiana fled the state to avoid a vote on anti-union legislation.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ratcheted up the pressure on state employees by linking relief from property taxes to sharp increases in what government workers pay for health insurance.

The budget fights initiated by Republican governors represent a multi-state effort by like-minded politicians to solve budgetary problems in part by weakening public employee unions and demanding significant concessions from workers. After the November elections, Republicans now control many more state legislatures and governorships.

Although the particulars may differ - some governors are seeking to end collective bargaining rights, others are not - the state executives share both a political philosophy and a conviction that the public is prepared to support these measures if they help fix long-term budgetary problems.

Republican officials said there is no coordinated campaign underway. Governors are loosely communicating, sharing text messages and occasional phone calls as they offer moral support to one another.

The Republican Governors Association is looking to offer additional political cover to the governors, starting with a new Web site aimed at bolstering Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose state remains ground zero in the current fight over public employee rights and compensation.

The mass protests that erupted in Wisconsin last week intensified elsewhere Tuesday. Democratic lawmakers in the Indiana House followed the lead of their counterparts in Wisconsin, refusing to show up at the capitol and thus preventing Republicans from having the two-thirds quorum needed to vote on numerous bills, including a controversial measure that would curtail private-sector union rights.

At issue is a "right to work" bill that would no longer require private-sector workers to belong to a union or pay for union representation. Union officials have called the effort an attempt to weaken workers' collective bargaining power. The bill's author, Republican Rep. Jerry Torr, has said it is an effort to draw employers to the state and create jobs.

The protests unfolding in Wisconsin and Indiana also played out in Ohio on Tuesday, as thousands of people assembled outside the state capitol in Columbus in opposition to a bill put forward by GOP lawmakers that would restrict collective bargaining rights for public employees.

A national debate

The wave of demonstrations has provoked a national debate over the power of public employee unions, as well as how states and the federal government should reduce their massive budget deficits. States across the country are facing unprecedented fiscal gaps as they deal with the fallout of the recession, which severely reduced their revenue while increasing demand for programs such as unemployment insurance and health care for the poor.

The controversy has also proved an important moment for public employee unions, whose interests are being pitted against those of other taxpayers.

Appearing before a joint session of the New Jersey legislature here in Trenton, Christie used a budget address to cast public employees as a special interest that enjoys pension and health-care benefits, along with job security, that are increasingly rare in the private sector. The governor urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would effectively undercut the collective bargaining leverage of public employees.

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