La Crosse students protest Wis. anti-union budget fixby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
La Crosse, Wis. — As Minnesota deals with a budget crisis, across the river in Wisconsin, the problem is much the same. But so far, the solution is not.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature want to eliminate collective bargaining as one way to help cut that state's budget deficit.
Opponents of the bill rallied across the state to try to preserve the union rights of public employees.
About 800 students at La Crosse Central High School left class for an hour yesterday to rally against the governor's proposed budget repair bill.
Some carried signs that read: "kill the bill" and "no to Walker." Others chanted as cars and trucks honked from the road in support.
It was one of dozens of rallies across the state.
Hank Wehrs, 16, organized this rally with students at other La Crosse schools to support their teachers who stand to lose thousands of dollars in higher pension and health care contributions if the legislature passes the proposal.
"We all just thought that was a really bad idea. It's essentially a pay decrease for all the teachers here and we need good teachers if we're going to get a proper education," he said. "And if we get a pay decrease for all our teachers, no one is going to want to work in the public school system anymore."
Walker's budget repair plan has been called by some the most aggressive anti-union proposal yet to solve state budget problems. Wisconsin is one of at least 7 states with proposals stripping teachers of some of their collective bargaining rights.
If the legislature approves Walker's proposal, it would mark an unprecedented shift for Wisconsin, which has had a comprehensive collective bargaining law since the 1960s.
Gerry Roethel, with the Coulee Region United Educators, said if the bill passes, it would cause irreparable damage to public sector unions. Coulee Region United Educators is a regional affiliate of the Wisconsin Education Association and represents school employees in 32 districts in western Wisconsin.
"That's really the most damaging component of the budget repair bill," Roethel said. "It simply eliminates the unions. It eliminates the capacity of employees, through their unions to engage in conversation of how do we fix this problem?"
Despite the massive demonstrations against the governor's proposal, the bill has found support, particularly among small business owners and other private sector-employees.
Gary Holm, who works at an antique shop in downtown La Crosse, said the way he sees it, the proposal is long overdue.
"I realize I'm probably not in the majority in the way a lot of people are looking at it but it's absolutely the right fix," Holm said. "I don't have any doubt about it. It's going to disappoint a lot of people who have had it too good for too long."
Holm said he's tired of hearing public sector employees argue their pay is lower than many private sector workers.
"To me for someone to complain when they have so much more than someone else, or feel it's owed to them, I classify that as whining," he said.
In addition to eliminating collective bargaining rights, the proposed bill would also make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage. Walker says these increases are "modest" compared to those in the private sector.
But La Crosse County Board Supervisor Tara Johnson worries if the bill is approved, thousands of public sector workers in her county would lose a lot of money.
"To make major policy decisions under the guise of an emergency budget bill is offensive and is inappropriate," Johnson said. "It's not consistent with how we do business in Wisconsin and that is very frustrating."
It's not likely the full legislature would act on the proposal before next week. Gov. Walker has says he's open to making changes, but he promised not to do anything that would "fundamentally undermine the principles" of the bill.
- Morning Edition, 02/17/2011, 7:06 a.m.