MADISON, Wis. - The facts have often been overshadowed by rhetoric in Wisconsin, where protesters and politicians have been engaged in a tense standoff over a proposal to strip most public employees of their collective-bargaining rights.
Gov. Scott Walker says his plan is needed to ease a deficit projected to hit $137 million by July and $3.6 billion by mid-2013. By midsummer, 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. Those increases would raise $30 million by July and $300 million over the next two years.
But the flash point 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 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.
If he's intent on using cuts in state aid to balance the budget, eliminating collective bargaining does go a long way to giving local communities the ability to deal with the reductions. 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 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.