Facts overshadowed in debate over union bill

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By SCOTT BAUER and PATRICK CONDON
The Associated Press
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 7:04 PM

MADISON, Wis. -- The facts have been overshadowed by rhetoric at the Wisconsin Capitol, where protesters and politicians have been engaged in a tense standoff over the governor's proposal to strip most public employees of their collective-bargaining rights.

Gov. Scott Walker insists the state is broke and must make drastic spending cuts. Unions believe Republican leaders are trying to wipe them out. Two weeks into the debate, The Associated Press assessed the claims in an effort to shed light on what's at stake.

Walker says his plan is needed to ease a deficit that is projected to hit $137 million by July and $3.6 billion by mid-2013.

The budget as it stands now is balanced, and Walker is under no legal obligation to make changes. But by mid-summer, the state could come up short on cash to pay its bills, largely because of a projected $169 million shortfall in its Medicaid program.

Walker's plan comes up with the money for this year by refinancing debt to save $165 million and forcing state employees to pay for half the cost of their pensions and twice their current health care premiums. That is equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut.

Those increases in benefit contributions would raise $30 million by July and $300 million over the next two years.

But the flashpoint is his proposed elimination of collective bargaining rights. Nearly all state and local government workers would be forbidden from bargaining for any wage increases beyond the rate of inflation.

Walker argues the sweeping step is necessary to balance the budget not only over the next two years but into the future. School districts, cities, counties and other local governments need the flexibility, he says, to deal with more than $1 billion in state aid cuts Walker will announce Tuesday in his two-year budget plan.

That's certainly one way to tackle the problem, but it's not the only solution.

Walker has refused even to consider some of the other ways to raise the massive amount of money needed. He repeatedly has said his measures are the only way to fix the state's budget problems now and for the long term as he proposes deep cuts to state and local governments in his upcoming two-year budget.

He also is resolved not to raise taxes - an option used by Democrats who controlled the Legislature when the state faced a deficit that was nearly twice as large as the one Walker inherited. The Democrats also relied heavily on federal stimulus aid, which the state does not have available this time around.

Not raising taxes and not tapping federal aid leaves Walker with few alternatives other than reducing the money the state gives to schools and local governments or reducing Medicaid to the extent allowed under federal law.


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© 2011 The Associated Press

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