Facts Overshadowed In Debate Over Union Bill

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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.

Aid to schools and local governments is more than half of the entire state budget. Medical assistance programs are 9 percent, as is funding for the state prison system and money for the University of Wisconsin system. Walker won’t make cuts to the prisons, but he’s expected to make deep reductions in higher education.

As for Medicaid, Walker gives himself as much leeway as possible under the bill that passed the Assembly early Friday but remains hung up in the Senate because of 14 AWOL Democrats who skipped town to stymie efforts to vote on the proposal in that chamber.

Walker’s bill gives his administration the power to make any changes necessary to Medicaid to save money, regardless of current law and without approval of the Legislature. Medicaid is a $1.2 billion part of the budget, but even with the freedom the bill gives him, Walker will be hamstrung by federal law that limits how many cost-saving changes states can make without a waiver.

Walker’s new health department secretary, Dennis Smith, is a former federal Medicaid official who has advocated that states drop out of the program entirely. That position and others taken by Smith are worrisome to advocates for the poor, disabled and elderly, who are largely the beneficiaries of the program.

Walker has not released details of what he may cut in Medicaid. At least some of the cuts will be contained in his budget coming out Tuesday.

But the key to that plan, according to Walker, is ending collective bargaining rights. Doing that isn’t about busting unions, Walker argues, but balancing budgets.

If he’s intent on using cuts in state aid to balance the budget, eliminating collective bargaining does go a long way to achieving one of his key goals — giving local communities the ability to deal with the reductions.

With 3,000 units of government in Wisconsin, all in various stages of contractual negotiations, eliminating collective bargaining may be the only way they could quickly deal with the cuts, said Todd Berry, president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Walker has also threatened that if the bill doesn’t pass, up to 1,500 people may be laid off by July in order to achieve the savings necessary to balance the budget, with another 6,000 layoffs by the middle of 2013, with an equal number on the local level.

That layoff threat is a real possibility if schools are going to see a large cut in aid and have their ability to raise property taxes restricted, Berry said.

“If 80 percent of your budget is personnel, and you’re having state and your property tax revenues reduced while your costs are going up, you can’t solve your problem without addressing compensation,” Berry said.

In that case, “you only have two choices — reduce the number of people or keep the people and reduce the amount of compensation,” he said.

Karen Bloczynski, a fourth-grade teacher in Marshfield, said she expects to be laid off under Walker’s plan. With 35 years of experience and a $70,000 salary, Bloczynski said she’s more expensive than younger colleagues.

Bloczynski said she’s sent letters to a local electrician, a furniture store and several restaurants warning them they’re likely to feel the effect.
“Teachers spend money in their communities,” she said.

Teachers have been a large part of the protests that have enveloped the Capitol for 11 days, including a massive 68,000 person demonstration. The statewide teachers union represents about 39,000 people.

The central part of Walker’s argument is that government workers have long escaped painful cuts that those in the private sector have had to bear. That ignores the fact that under Walker’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, state workers were forced to take furlough days that amounted to a 3 percent pay cut. State employees have also not had a raise for more than two years.

Even so, Walker has portrayed public employees as the “haves” and private workers as the “have nots,” saying government workers can afford trims to their salaries and benefits because on average they earn more than private-sector workers.

This is true as a straight average, but several national reports of public versus private pay say it’s also misleading.

In a report released in December 2010, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average state/local government worker earns $40.10 an hour in salary and benefits. The same report found the average private worker earns $27.68 an hour in salary and benefits.

But the report was quick to note that this is not a direct comparison. Government workers tend to be better-educated than their private-sector counterparts, and government jobs are more likely to be professional or managerial as opposed to the many more manufacturing and sales jobs in the private work force.

In fact, studies that compare salaries and benefits for similar jobs between the public and private sectors show that government workers lag.

An April 2010 report by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence — a nonpartisan, Washington-based group with Republicans and Democrats on its board of directors — found that in 2008, state workers nationwide earned 11 percent less and local workers earned 12 percent less than private workers with comparable education levels.

The same study found that in Wisconsin between 2000 and 2008, total compensation for state and local workers was less than comparable private sector workers.

Jeff McArthur, a sergeant at Black River Correctional Center, estimated under Walker’s plan he would lose about $400 a month from his $45,000-a-year salary. The 41-year-old father of three said his family would definitely feel the difference.

“The first things that are going to go are luxury things,” McArthur said. “We’ll cut back on our cable. We’ll cut back on our cell phones. We won’t take family trips, stuff like that. We are not rich. We just want to have a good middle class life. We’re not looking to be rich. We’re just looking to get by.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • tiredandretired


  • Stop the whining

    Wow. They are complaining about losing what, 8 percent of their pay? I lost 45 percent of my pay since 2008, AND I still have to pay for them, and their pay increases since then.

    As far as collective bargaining, there is a huge conflict of interest there. The unions thelp the Democratic politicans get elected, and donate massive amounts of money to their campaigns. The Democratic politicians then give the unions almost anything they want during their contract negitiations. But, the Democratic polititions DON’T have to pay for those contracts, the taxpayers do. The Democratic polititians and the unions are engaging in collusion, which is basically organized crime.

    • Sam

      “Democratic politicians and the unions are engaging in collusion…”

      I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your statement, but the same could be said about Republicans and big business. Big business buys the Republicans (or, in many cases, big business _is_ the Republican Party). Republicans pass bills and shift taxes in ways that are bad for the middle class, but good for the executives of big business. Republicans get more money, either in “campaign donations” (which can include things like paid personal vacations), or in stock from the businesses they are invested in, and big business gets more leeway to walk all over its workers and customers.

      An extreme in either direction is bad.

      • ps

        remember politics make strange bedfellows

    • tiredandretired

      Their wages were held down by a special state law for about 17 years, including the time period of the economic boom. While the private sector was getting their slice of the pie, most teachers in Wis. were just getting the crumbs.

    • Paul Solinger

      Whose whining? “I lost 45 percent of my pay since 2008, AND I still have to pay for them, and their pay increases since then.” Would you like some cheese?

      • Mike

        So Paul, why use your pay scale for setting earnings for others? Let’s just leap off the collective cliff at minimum wage! After all, what your proposing is a race to the bottom……..

  • Chris K

    Wow, a 4 th grade teacher makes 70 racks a year? Holy mackeral Batman that is serious bread for teaching kids cursive. That jusy seems way out of line with the job duties. Sorry but you are probably overpaid. I could see maybe 50 k after 35 years on the job but wow I must be in the wrong line of work.

    • Support Teachers

      I am 9 months out of college and into my career and already make $50,000 a year. Having spent four summers working with 4th graders, there is no question in my mind that a teacher who has worked for 35 years deserves at least $70,000 a year if not more given her level of education and years of experience. Of course, she is on the VERY high end of the spectrum and most teachers are not paid nearly this amount. I challenge you to look up some additional statistics regarding this number. Furthermore, your comment implying that all a 4th grade teacher does is teach students cursive (definitely not an easy task!) makes you sound extremely ignorant and uninformed. I have a job that pays me far more than most of my teachers (from Wisconsin!) make each year thanks to their dedication to their job and students. I will forever be appreciative and supportive of Wisconsin teachers!

    • Paul Solinger

      You couldn’t hack it, Chris. You’d be run out of class the first week, weeping and crying like a baby. By the way, with an average of 25 student sin class, teachers make about $1.50 per kid. Babysitters make more money. If anything, teaches are underpaid. &70,000 (at the top end, by the way) is a drop in the bucket compared to what they should get.

  • tiredandretired

    Of course they pick one of the highest paid teachers to focus on. Her salary is WAY beyond the usual. In my area, she would only make about 55K and that’s with her 35 years on the job AND a Doctorate.

  • John

    Should Minnesotans feel insulted that state senators from Wisconsin fled to Illinois? Or does that seem about right since politically speaking, Illinois is one of the most corrupt states in the country.

  • Figureitout

    Great artical, way to continually dance around the trooth and not state any real facts, but hey, that’s what cco is good at.

    The unions have done nothing in the last 60 years other than line the pockets of their “union representative”. My father in law is a retired master plumber, he still pays union dues. Yes, he gets a pension, from the company he worked for for 50 years, not anything from the union.

    Unions were a great idea in the ’20’s when they were established, represented the workers, the only way the little guy had a voice. In the 40’s the union “leaders” realized they could make a lot of money, and since then there is nothing but corruption in the unions. The best thing that can be done is get rid of all of them and start over.

    Allah, not sure what you mean by spin… Guess you don’t like what you like on the liberal media sites? Maybe the Dumbocrats should stand up for what they believe in rather than running and hiding.

    As far as the teachers, if you have a problem with what they make feel free to volunteer to help out in class for a few days, and then let’s see what you think.

    • PAUL

      Figureitout you can spin it any way you like but yes Unions have there place in todays society they were instramental in getting and overseeing workers rights ,work place conditions, working conditions in general and getting fair wages for everyone

  • Mike

    Every point you make is a contradiction of your last!
    1.) Unions have done nothing. Contradiction; My uncle benefited from being in a Union!
    2.) Unions were great in the 20’s.Contradiction; My uncle was employeed for 50 years as a union member! Way beyond the 20’s.
    3.) He gets nothing from the Union? Contradiction; If it wasn’t fo the union, your father in law would be getting NOTHING!!!!!!
    Besides, who put you in charge of determining whether union representation is good for me or anyone else? It is the only means of bringing democracy to the workplace and if Republicans are trying to “outlaw” collective bargaining, it is to place the profits
    in the hands of a few versus, “WE THE PEOPLE.”

  • dan

    Unions have outlived their time. Yes there was a time when in the first half of the 1900’s when they served a purpose, now they are obsolete and choke the life out of the organizations where they exist, witness GM & Chrysler. They are only able to grow in the public employee arena under the care and guidance of Democrat politicians. In MN you have unions buying country clubs (StarTrib Business section 2-24-11) how much more proof do you need of their largasse. It is arrogant of these people to believe that joe taxpayer, whom in many cases is struggling to pay his bills, should support these bloated union benefits and the Union bureaucracy that goes with them. It’s time for them to work under the realilty that mainstream America lives in and pitch in to share the responsibility in keeping our tax burdens in check.

    • ps

      what country club in Minnesota I would like to join please let us know

    • Nica

      Dan- Can you provide facts on what you consider”bloated union benefits” in Minnesota? What are some of these benefits that public worker receive and how much do they pay to have them?

  • Tim

    Unions are the only reason everyones wages are in most cases livable. How long do you think it would take for your employer to reduce your wage if he knew you had nowhere else to go or worse, fire you because you are getting closer to retirement (happens all the time). And have you noticed the 40 hour work week (implimented by unions to afford you more time to spend with your family) is all but a gone. Union members created and maintain the middle class and many of you unwittingly reap the benefits that your parents and grandparents fought for. Don’t be too naive, for your childrens sake.

  • Jessi


    Teachers and unions have agreed to the pay cuts. For better or for worse, the collective bargaining is the issue that no one can accept, as collective bargaining is democracy.

    In my six years in the union, I have faced three pay freezes in order to preserve the budget of our district and help offset rising health insurance costs. Now that I have a Master’s and six years experience, I’ll probably clear $40,000 next year, so not all teachers are compensated as much as the example in the article.

    If Walker’s bill is such a positive move for Wisconsin, why was (and still is) he trying to pass it at such a rapid rate? Read a little into the Koch brothers and you will see what agenda Walker is supporting. And why aren’t the cuts also being made at the Capital, starting with the “budget-conscious” governor?

    Mr. 45% cut in pay – how overpaid were you before the cut? Thank goodness you’re still able to “pay my salary”.

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