Contract Review Committee Includes Three Lawmakers Who Were Defeated Last Month

MacIver News Service | December 12, 2010 | MacIver Institute

[Madison, Wisc] Three of the eight members of the legislative committee set to review 16 controversial labor agreements Tuesday were defeated at the ballot box last month.

Although the notice was not posted on the state’s own website, the online news service The Wheeler Report alerted their subscribers that the legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations will be holding hearing on the contracts on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 in room 411 South in the State Capitol in Madison.  The meeting is open to the public.

Committee members Mike Sheridan (the current Assembly Speaker from Janesville) and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker of Weston, both Democrats, lost their bids for re-election in November. Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson (D-Kaukauna) ran as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s Lieutenant Governor nominee and lost to the Republican ticket of Governor-elect Scott Walker and his running mate Lieutenant Governor-elect Rebbecca Kleefisch.

Despite losing their respective elections and leaving office on January 3rd, the three lawmakers will play a key role in determining if the agreements with the government unions will be ratified by the full legislature.

The Joint Committee traditionally is comprised of the legislative leadership of both parties and the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance. In addition to the defeated Democratic leaders, other current members of the committee include Dane County Democrats Mark Pocan, a State Representative from Madison and Monona’s Mark Miller, the State Senator from Monroe. Current Senate Minority Leader Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Minority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) round out JCOER’s membership.

The JCOER has not met since this spring, as contract negotiations with the state’s largest bargaining units stalled. Negotiations picked up after the November election and government employees were given ten days to review tentative agreements before voting for or against them.

The agreements were first made available to the general public late on the afternoon of December 10th, less than four days before JCOER is set to vote on them. If JCOER approves the contracts Tuesday, it is possible that the full legislature will meet to consider them later this week.

Only once in the 162-year history of the State has the Wisconsin Legislature met in a lame duck session to approve labor accords, when one contract was ratified in 1974.

“We request that legislators return as soon as possible this month for a brief session to approve the public employee contracts. Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt wrote in a memo to legislators last week. “We ask that legislators observe the reliable process and legal framework that has governed state labor-management relations for decades by returning this month to approve the agreements that state employees bargained in good faith with their employer.”

The incoming governor has requested lawmakers take the time to consider the ramifications of the wage, benefit and work rule agreements.

“I have received extensive budget briefings on both our overall $3.3 billion structural deficit and the current fiscal year shortfall,” said Walker last week. “It’s important to keep all options on the table. If the lame duck legislature passes employee contracts now, their action will tie my hands when trying to deal with the deficit moving forward.”

Walker said last week that passing the proposed contracts could lead to steep cuts in state services. According to a memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which Walker released, in fiscal year 2011 (which ends June 30) the State of Wisconsin is facing the following shortfalls:

  • $148 million in Medicaid
  • $9.5 million in the Office of Public Defender
  • $90.7 million in the Transportation Fund

Walker’s office indicated that minor changes to the proposed labor agreements could reap significant savings.

Requiring state workers to make a 5% contribution to their own pensions would save the state $95 million in FY11 if implemented from January through June. The Walker team also says adjustments could also be made to state employees’health insurance plans to allow an additional $59 million of savings to be realized yet this fiscal year.

“If the legislative majorities ram through union contracts prior to dealing with the budget shortfall they created, it will be much more difficult to protect those Wisconsinites who receive MA or who are in need of help from public defenders,” Walker said.