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Judge blocks Wis. law curbing workers’ rights

Bill may need additional vote to be enacted

‘We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly,’ said majority leader Scott Fitzgerald. ‘We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly,’ said
majority leader Scott Fitzgerald.
By Scott Bauer and Jason Smathers
Associated Press / March 19, 2011

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MADISON, Wis. — The monthlong saga over Governor Scott Walker’s plan to sharply curb collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin took a dramatic turn yesterday when a judge temporarily blocked the measure from taking effect.

Dane County District Judge Maryann Sumi plans to hold a hearing on whether lawmakers violated the state’s open meeting law, raising the possibility that the Legislature will have to vote again on the law.

The legislation prompted Senate Democrats to abandon the chamber and go to Illinois for three weeks and attracted protests with as many as 85,000 people as Wisconsin became the focus of the national fight over union rights.

But Walker’s spokesman and Republican legislative leaders indicated they would press on with the court battle rather than consider passing the bill again.

“We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that today’s ruling was a significant overreach,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. “We highly doubt a Dane County judge has the authority to tell the Legislature how to carry out its constitutional duty.’’

Sumi granted the temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by the local Democratic district attorney, alleging that Republican lawmakers violated the open meeting law by hastily convening a special committee before the Senate passed the bill.

Sumi said her ruling would not prevent the Legislature from reconvening the committee with proper notice and passing the bill again.

In addition to restricting the bargaining rights, the law would require most public workers in the state to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, changes that will amount on average to an 8 percent pay cut. Walker’s spokesman Cullen Werwie said he was confident the bill would soon become law.

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the decision will be appealed because the Legislature and the governor, not a judge, are responsible for enacting laws and can’t be blocked in a dispute over the procedures under which a law is passed. His spokesman Bill Cosh said an appeal would be filed Monday.

Even if the Legislature is forced to come back and take up the bill again, at least one Senate Democrat will be there. Senator Tim Cullen said he would not leave the state again.

“I think that does great damage to the institution,’’ Cullen said. “I have no regrets about doing it once, but that was in extraordinary times to try to slow the bill down.’’

The Senate couldn’t pass the bill in its original form without at least one Democrat to meet a 20-member quorum requirement for measures that spend money. With the Democrats in Illinois and refusing to return, Republicans convened a special committee last week to remove the spending items. The bill with the measure on bargaining rights then passed with no Democrats present.

That move is being challenged in another lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who argues that the bill as passed still should have required the 20-member quorum. A hearing on that was set for April 12.

Opponents of the law were hopeful the judge’s ruling temporarily blocking enactment of the law would lead to concessions.

“I would hope the Republicans would take this as an opportunity to sit down with Democrats and negotiate a proposal we could all get behind,’’ said Democratic Senator Jon Erpenbach.

The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union said the Legislature should use this as a chance to listen to opponents of the measure.

“Wisconsin’s educators call upon the Legislature to take this as a clear signal that Wisconsinites will not tolerate backroom deals and political power plays when it comes to our public schools and other valued services,’’ said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

The bill was part of Walker’s solution for plugging a $137 million state budget shortfall. A part of the measure would require state workers to increase their health insurance and pension contributions to save the state $30 million by July 1.

Other parts of Walker’s original proposal to address the shortfall were removed before the bill passed last week. The Legislature plans to take those up later.

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