By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 1:16 AM
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) Friday began the process for laying off 1,500 state employees, escalating the bitter standoff over his legislation to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Walker sent letters to state employee unions saying that layoff notices would go out to state employees in 15 days. The governor also said that actual layoffs would occur a month from now if legislators do not pass his "budget repair" proposal.
Walker's bill, which experts say would eviscerate the state's public employee unions, has been at a standstill since 14 Senate Democrats left the state two weeks ago to block a vote.
"While these notices start the process needed to [lay off] state employees, if the Senate Democrats come back to Wisconsin, these notices may be able to be rescinded and layoffs avoided," said a statement from Walker's office.
The proposal would eliminate most collective bargaining for public employees across Wisconsin, while preventing unions from collecting dues with payroll deductions. Walker's bill would also prevent unions from requiring members to pay dues.
"What the governor wants is nothing less than the annihilation of public employee unions in Wisconsin," said Steven Kreisberg, director of collective bargaining and health care policy for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. "He wants to destroy the institution that workers have to speak for them."
Walker's measure would also require state workers to pay more for their health care and pensions - which they have agreed to.
Walker has said the changes are needed to help close the state's budget gap - which stands at $137 million this year and $3.6 billion over the next two years. He has warned that if his budget repair bill is not passed there could eventually be as many as 12,000 public employee layoffs across the state.
Walker said curbing collective bargaining would give local officials the tools to unilaterally cut government workers' take-home pay and change their work rules. Walker said local leaders would need that power to manage the steep cuts in state aid contemplated in his next budget.
Walker's bill also would make money-saving and coverage-reducing changes to the state's Medicaid program, while making it easier to privatize the state's 37 heating and cooling plants, most of which serve state universities and prisons.
Walker proposed cutting school aid by $834 million over the next two years while slashing $96 million from aid to local governments next year. The budget would prevent local governments from making up the revenue loss through higher taxes.
In addition, Walker has called for other cost-saving measures such as doing away with state mandates requiring a 180-day school year. The governors' budget plan would also repeal requirement that school districts have reading specialists and only licensed nurses with bachelor's degrees. In addition, local governments would not be required to operate trash recycling programs.
Walker's moves have sparked a firestorm of protest, causing tens of thousands of demonstrators to descend on the state Capitol in Madison. The governor's aggressive approach also appears not to be playing well with Wisconsin voters, who elected him with 52 percent of the vote last fall.
A new Rasmussen poll found that 57 percent of likely voters in Wisconsin disapprove of the job Walker is doing, while 43 percent approve. Of those who disapprove, 48 percent strongly disapprove, according to the survey.
Even as Walker moves ahead toward layoffs, there was no sign that the Democrats who have left the state have plans to return. Still, there was a growing sense that they would be unable to move Walker or his GOP supporters in the legislature toward compromise.
"It looks like the only way we can kill this bill is to never come back," said state Sen. Robert Jauch, who is among the 14 Democratic lawmakers who decamped to Illinois to prevent a Senate quorum to vote on Walker's bill. "That's an unlikely prospect."
Walker has said that he has no choice but to begin moving toward the job cuts. His announcement came after the Senate Democrats were found in contempt by their GOP counterparts. Democrats dismissed the contempt finding as unconstitutional.