State Government and Political News: New fiscal year begins and state budget in effect
Everyone's lives in Wisconsin will change - at least a little - since the new state budget took effect at midnight.
Republican Governor Scott Walker has said it will be easier to find a job, due to the tax breaks he approved for new-and-expanding businesses. But a UW-Madison think tank says many jobs Walker created so far don't pay much. And if you lose a job, the budget forces you to wait an extra week to apply for unemployment benefits. Walker and his Republicans held the line on state-and-local taxes. But with a billion-dollars in state aid cuts, public schools and local governments say you won't get all the services to which you're accustomed - even with their savings in labor costs due to the new union bargaining limits.
Political candidates will be on their own in raising money, as public financing disappears. And big donors can give up to $10,000 to Supreme Court candidates instead of a-thousand. Critics say people will try to buy their brand of justice. On the plus side, those who file small claims' suits can win up to $10,000 instead of five-thousand. The new state budget also cuts a half-billion-dollars from Medicaid - cuts the state earned income tax credit for the working poor - bars kids of illegal immigrants from getting in-state UW tuition - consolidates the state's juvenile institutions at Irma in north-central Wisconsin - and lets needy people put up their cars as collateral for loans, which was made illegal just a year ago. But most of all, Republicans say you won't have to worry about new taxes to cover huge state deficits every two years. The new budget carries over a much smaller amount of expenses into the following budget period in mid-2013.
Governor Scott Walker's office says the state's largest teachers' union should stop suing people and start helping schools avoid layoffs. That's how spokesman Cullen Werwie reacted to a lawsuit from WEAC yesterday. The union said the law that lets the governor veto administrative rules from state agencies is unconstitutional. That's because it gives Walker authority over an elected state school superintendent who's supposed to be accountable to the voters. Walker has said in the past that administrative rules from elected officials have always been subject to review by the Legislature - and no official can act arbitrarily. WEAC president Mary Bell accused Walker of making an illegal power grab. The Department of Public Instruction has also questioned the constitutionality of the new law. Yesterday, spokesman John Johnson said the agency would let its previous objections stand, while the courts decide the issue. Werwie said the governor is focused on working together with both parties to improve education while the union is quote, "polarizing our state, getting teachers laid off, and hurting the quality of education students are receiving." That's an apparent reference to the law that limits public union bargaining - which the governor has said would help school districts cut their labor costs and deal with cuts in state aid in the new state budget which took effect this morning.
The 14 Wisconsin Democratic senators who bolted from the State Capitol for three weeks will be honored by the National Education Association on Sunday. The nation's largest teachers union will give the group its "Friend of Education Award," for trying to block a Senate vote on the new law that virtually ends collective bargaining for teachers and other unions. Three of those Democrats face possible recalls from those who condemn the lawmakers for not doing their jobs. But the NEA says the 14 Democrats are quote, "heroes of the continuing struggle - not just in Wisconsin, but across America - to protect public employees and working families." For the first time in 39 years, the national union is giving its award to a group instead of an individual. It will be presented at the NEA's convention in Chicago - where some of the Democrats camped out while they were gone. Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald says nobody should win an award for quote, "abdicating your responsibility as a senator." And Fitzgerald says they'll be judged by voters and history as "both foolish and wrong."
A float that features an emotional scene from the 9-11 terrorist attacks has become embroiled in Wisconsin's union politics. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel said Oak Creek fire lieutenant Matt Gorniak was taken aback, when the Racine fire union refused to march with the float in Monday's Fourth-of-July parade. Gorniak said it was because he pulled out of the State Fire-fighters Association this past spring. And while he still makes payments to cover negotiating costs, he's no longer helping to fund other union activities. Leaders of the Racine fire union refused comment. But veteran Racine fire-fighter Mike Gabbey said the remembrance of 9-11 - and the float's salute to firefighters - should have nothing to do with union politics. And he told the Journal-Sentinel there will be a huge public backlash. The float depicts the classic photo of three fire-fighters raising the American flag in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Gorniak said crowds gave thunderous applause when the float appeared in three Milwaukee County parades in 2002. Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen said the float was a good idea. But he couldn't make his officers be on it, so he had the union handle it. Gorniak said the union was for all it, until they learned of his withdrawal from the state association. He said he pulled because he agrees with Governor Scott Walker - and he couldn't stand the protests over the law that limits collective bargaining. Fire unions are exempt from that law.
Wisconsin's Supreme Court justices would be appointed instead of elected under a constitutional amendment proposed by two long-time senators. Richland Center Republican Dale Schultz and Janesville Democrat Tim Cullen told the Wisconsin State Journal they're looking for colleagues to co-sponsor the amendment. They hope to get enough sponsors to introduce it in September. Cullen says the election process has caused special interests to pump in millions-of-dollars to get their people on the bench. Schultz says people are ready for a change, even though they often balk at losing their right to vote. Schultz says it's become clear that the Supreme Court is not serving people well. Under the new plan, the Legislature would create a selection commission to recommend five candidates for each vacancy. The governor would make the appointment, and the Senate would confirm it. It's called a merit-based program, and 28 states have it. For years, Wisconsin justices used to retire whenever they were ready - and governors would normally appoint replacements because their 10-year terms were not up. But voters have chosen each of the last four justices - and all but one of the elections were highlighted by special interest influence. But Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says the appointment process goes into a dangerous area, and open elections are the only way to go. He said former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is about to go prison for being a quote, "king-maker."