SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 29, 2011

Fight over Wis. union law heads to court

SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — With Republican Gov. Scott Walker's administration insisting a new law eliminating most of state workers' collective bargaining rights had gone into effect and other state and municipal leaders disputing that, many were looking to a Tuesday court hearing for some kind of clarity.

The latest over the collective bargaining law began Friday when the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau published the law by posting it on a website, and Walker said that was all that was needed for it to take effect. Typically, a law goes into effect when it's published by the secretary of state, but Democrat Doug La Follette had been prevented from taking action by a temporary restraining order.

The state had appealed that restraining order, but on Monday, the Justice Department led by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked to withdraw its appeal and cancel the Tuesday hearing, saying the whole thing was moot now that the law had been published.

Walker's administration said it was moving to implement the law Republicans pushed through earlier this month despite massive protests that drew up to 85,000 people to the state Capitol and a boycott by Democratic state senators. Along with removing most of public employees' collective bargaining rights, the new law requires them to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, which amounts to an 8 percent pay cut.

Walker's top aide, Mike Huebsch, said the administration was preparing a computer program to take out the new deductions and stop the deduction of union dues on paychecks state workers will receive April 21. The Department of Administration would stop that work if a court determined the law didn't take effect Saturday, Huebsch added.

But La Follette, the head of the office that posted the law, the Madison city attorney and others maintained the law is not in effect until the secretary of state acts.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, filed briefs Monday evening asking the judge for just such a declaration on Tuesday. Ozanne argues the secretary of state and the reference bureau work in tandem to publish laws. The secretary of state sets the publication date and the bureau executes publication on that day, he contends.

"Mere electronic posting, absent the other steps, particularly the involvement of the secretary of state .... is itself meaningless and has no legal effect," Ozanne wrote.

Given the difference of opinions, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards told districts that are still negotiating with teachers not to take any official action until the courts resolve the dispute.

"Because we have a difference of opinion within the state administration, the safest place to be is to not enter an agreement at the present time," said Bob Butler, an attorney for the school boards association. "I'm very hesitant to tell someone to go out and do something a portion of the state is telling you not to do."

Any deals reached since Saturday could later be challenged if that turns out to have been the effective date of the law, he said.

Butler said he thought as many as 150 of the state's 424 school districts either extended their current contracts or reached new deals before Saturday. About 200 took no action, and another 75 or so were still considering what to do, including some that were close to a deal before Friday's unexpected action, he said.

At least two districts — Waunakee and Belleville — signed agreements last week, he said.

At least one school district canceled a Monday night meeting scheduled to talk about a new teacher contract, saying it didn't want to act with uncertainty reigning about the state of the law.

Port Washington-Saukville School Board President Patty Ruth said in a news release that going forward given the circumstances "would create significant risks for our district, all of which can be avoided if we cancel the meeting until the courts have rendered their decisions on the various legal questions."

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said he thought many communities that wanted to reach labor agreements before the law took effect did so before Saturday. He said others have chosen to hold on negotiating new contracts until they had a clearer sense how they would be affected under Walker's pending two-year budget plan.

Walker has proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to schools, counties and local governments in his budget that would take effect in July. He has argued union concessions are needed to help those affected make up for his proposed aid cuts.