Janesville73.7°

Local reactions to Walker budget plan range from outrage to approval

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
February 12, 2011
— Are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposals to curtail collective bargaining rights an effort to bust unions?

Or are they necessary to save the state’s pension system, balance the state budget and balance public and private sector benefits?


Local reactions to Walker’s plan run the gamut from outrage to approval, and those reactions mostly depend on a person’s politics and where he or she gets benefits.


Russ Steeber, a Janesville City Council member and a Rock County employee, is writing a letter opposing Walker’s proposals. He will ask fellow council members Monday to sign the letter to send to Madison.


“It is my opinion that these contracts and issues are local and should be resolved without interference by the state,” Steeber said. “The city of Janesville has long worked in a positive fashion with its local unions, and it is imperative that these workers’ rights remain intact and that the city be allowed to bargain in good faith to the mutual benefit of both parties.”


Unions negotiate in good faith because they generally understand the consequences—such as layoffs—of not doing so, Steeber said.


He cited city union employees who agreed to delay for a year a previously approved 3 percent salary increase in 2010. The city is negotiating with its four unions for 2011.


Steeber said he also is concerned about Republicans “ramming this through” without public input.


It is not right that Walker proposes negating what employees have worked for all these years, Steeber said.


“It’s not fair for the employees,” he said.


Other options exist to reduce costs, such as instituting wellness programs, he said.


“The other side of it is, when you start taking away that much all at once, what kind of employees are you going to attract?” Steeber asked.


Councilman and attorney Tom McDonald doesn’t know if he will sign Steeber’s letter.


“I think that’s certainly appropriate (that employees) contribute to their pensions and to their health insurance,” McDonald said. “I can tell you I would not support completely disbanding all collective bargaining rights and disbanding all unions.”


Walker’s proposals could save the state money, he said.


“On the other hand, it’s going to make a lot of workers upset, and that could translate into service reductions and employees perhaps not working as hard to fulfill the services,” McDonald said. “It’s a difficult issue.”


Dave Parr, a teacher and president of the Janesville Education Association, said he understands the need for austerity. However, he’s disappointed in Walker’s leadership and said his proposals would harm all public workers.


“The people who take care of the state’s needs for all in Wisconsin are bearing the brunt of this economic crisis,” he said.


“Unions have a right to bargain, and the fact he’s taking them away seems like a little boy who has taken his ball and wants to go home,” Parr said.


Teachers are different from other state workers in that they effectively lived under a salary and benefits cap—the so-called Qualified Economic Offer—for 17 years, he said.


Teacher salaries do not compare with those in the private sector, which is why the benefits are so important, Parr said.


Parr said public workers must mobilize quickly to try to fight the legislation.


“This is blatantly unfair, and we have to let them know we feel that way,” he said.


Bill Sodemann, a businessman and Janesville School Board president, said the state is forced to take such steps to balance its budget. Because most of a budget is personnel costs, “I’m not sure how you correct such a huge budget deficit without having to take steps that do affect people,” he said.


He agreed that the teachers’ former salary cap was unfair because only teachers were held to that standard. But now they pay nothing for their retirement and a minimal amount for health insurance, he said.


The current system is not sustainable, he said.


“It’s not a question of their (employees’) ability,” he said. “It’s an economic reality.”


Walker’s proposal would give local governments tools so they won’t have to raise taxes as much to balance their budgets, Sodemann said, adding he doubts districts will receive more money from the state in the next budget.


New legislation probably will not apply immediately to Janesville schools because the board signed a three-year contract with teachers that guarantees them current benefits with no increases in health care premiums, Sodemann said.


Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said he wants to balance the state budget, but Walker’s bill goes far beyond what is necessary.


Cullen, a former school board member, called it “an attempt to destroy the unionized workforce in the public sector.”


Walker could have taken less drastic steps to balance the biennial budget that ends June 30, Cullen said, adding that would have given Walker time to work on the deficit in the coming biennium.


That time could have been used to negotiate concessions from unions, and if that didn’t work, Walker could have said he made a good-faith effort before imposing his solution, Cullen suggested.


Cullen said he expected the Republicans to “ram” the bill through, probably voting Thursday.


The Republicans have voted lock step on every bill in the recent special session, defeating every amendment the Democrats offered, Cullen said.


“There has been no break, no chink in the armor, and there is no reason for me to think that will change,” Cullen said.


Cullen said there is not much he can do to oppose the bill.


“You can talk against it. You can offer amendments, and you can try to make the case to the people of Wisconsin that this is a terrible way to run a government,” Cullen said.


Rep. Evan Wynn, R-Whitewater, said the changes are justified because of the number of state employees who would be laid off and the number of children who would lose health coverage if the state doesn’t act.


Walker has said that 6,000 state employees would be laid off if drastic changes aren’t made in contracts and 200,000 children would be forced off BadgerCare.


“We don’t have the luxury of sitting down and going through the entire process,” Wynn said. “If you wait until the last second to fix something, unfortunately your options are fewer.”


Rep. Joe Knilans, R-Janesville, said the state is in a fiscal crisis.


The pension system is healthy now, but participants must start paying in to keep it that way, he said.


“We have to look at the cold hard facts,” he said. “We don’t have the money to remain in the path we are right now.”


Even with the changes, public worker benefits will be better than what many receive in the private sector, he said.


No one will lose jobs or insurance coverage, and furloughs will be gone, Knilans said.



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