By Scott Bauer
MADISON, Wis. – After focusing for weeks on his proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker unveiled details of his two-year budget plan, Tuesday complete with painful cuts in education, Medicaid and aid for local governments.
Polls indicate national public opinion favors unions in the dispute, but Walker has been resolute. He’s already sought concessions from teachers, prison guards and other public workers — who fear more bad news awaits.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found 42 percent of adults surveyed nationwide sided with the unions and 31 percent sided with Walker. That poll of 1,009 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The latest New York Times-CBS poll found Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of almost two to one — 60 percent to 33 percent. The nationwide telephone poll of 984 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Just a quarter of adults in the poll considered public employees’ benefits and pay to be too high, while about the same share believed they are too low. About 36 percent say they are about right.
Majorities oppose cutting public employee benefits or pay in order to reduce state budget deficits or taking away some collective bargaining rights from public employee unions.
Some of the opposition may stem from skepticism about the state government’s motivations. Forty-five percent of those who responded to the New York Times-CBS poll believe states want to reduce employee benefits to help ease the deficit, but nearly as many (41 percent) say their aim is to weaken the power of unions.
Both polls were conducted Feb. 24-27.
By eliminating most collective bargaining, Walker argues, state agencies, local governments and school districts will have flexibility to react quickly to the cuts.
Unions and Democrats contend Walker’s true goal is to wipe out the unions and bolster his national conservative credentials.
Walker’s proposals have stirred a national debate over public-sector unions, and tens of thousands of protesters have descended on the Capitol for more than two weeks. Police limited access to the building on Monday, but a judge Tuesday granted a temporary restraining order forcing the building to reopen to the public.
Walker’s collective bargaining plan passed the Republican-controlled Assembly last week, but remains stalled in the Senate, where 14 Democrats fled to Illinois to prevent passage of the measure.
They have vowed to stay away until Walker is willing to compromise, something he has so far refused to do.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald met Monday in Kenosha with some of the missing Democrats and discussed terms under which they could return. Fitzgerald said they didn’t talk about changing the bill, which he said would not be altered. He would not say who was at the meeting or how many were there, but no agreement was reached.
“We keep taking,” Fitzgerald said.
Numerous compromises designed to end the stalemate, floated by the unions, Democrats and even a Republican senator, have not gained any traction.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 Democrats who fled to Illinois, said voters won’t stand for a plan that eliminates thousands of state workers.
In addition to the bargaining rights changes, the bill designed to plug this year’s projected $137 million shortfall also called for refinancing state debt to save $165 million. But the deadline to get that done was Tuesday.
Walker has threatened that more cuts would be coming if the deadline were missed, but has not outlined what they would be. In the days leading up to the speech, he also talked about cutting aid to schools and local governments by about $1 billion.
Walker has already signed into law additional tax breaks targeting businesses that will deepen the state’s budget hole by more than $100 million, even as he seeks more than $330 million in concessions from teachers, prison guards and other public employees.
Besides eliminating collective bargaining, the spending plan also forces public workers to pay more for their pensions and health care.
Democrats said Tuesday they feared Walker would propose privatizing many state functions, resulting in state workers losing their jobs.
In addition, University of Wisconsin leaders have said, the governor will propose allowing the flagship Madison campus to be broken off from the 26-campus system.
Wisconsin schools last week started putting teachers on notice that their contracts may not be renewed for next year given the budget uncertainty. Walker has confirmed he will propose cutting education aid by about $900 million, or 9 percent statewide.
School leaders were bracing for more bad news.
The governor was expected to announce a new revenue limit that would require a $500 per-pupil reduction in the amount school districts can collect from property taxes.
The limits, in place since 1993, have gradually grown to reflect increasing education costs. That part of Walker’s proposal alone would reduce the money available to the state’s 424 districts by 7 percent, or nearly $600 million, based on a study done by University of Wisconsin-Madison economics professor Andrew Reschovsky.