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In Wisconsin, budget cuts prompt rage among state workers

Governor defends plan, saying: ‘We’re broke’

By Monica Davey and Steven Greenhouse
New York Times / February 17, 2011

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MADISON, Wis. — As four game wardens awkwardly stood guard, protesters, scores deep, crushed into a corridor leading to the governor’s office here yesterday, their shouts echoing through the Capitol: “Come out, come out, wherever you are!’’

Behind closed doors, Scott Walker, the Republican who has been governor for about six weeks, calmly described his intent to forge ahead with the plans that had set off the uprising: He wants to require public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, effectively cutting the pay of many by around 7 percent.

He also wants to weaken most public-sector unions by sharply curtailing their collective bargaining rights.

Walker said he had no other options, since he is facing a deficit of $137 million in the current state budget and the prospect of a $3.6 billion hole in the coming two-year budget.

“For us, it’s simple,’’ said Walker, whose family home was surrounded by angry workers this week. “We’re broke.’’

For months, state and local officials around the country have tackled their budget problems by finding trims here and there, apologetically resorting to layoffs, and searching for accounting moves to limp through one more year.

Events in Wisconsin this week, though, are a sign of something new: No more apologies, no half-measures. Given the dire straits of budgets around the country, other state leaders may take similarly drastic steps with state workers, pensions, and unions.

“I’m sure we’re going to hear more from other states where Republican governors are trying to heap the entire burden of the financial crisis on public employees and public employees unions,’’ said William B. Gould IV, a labor law professor at Stanford University and a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

“I think it’s quite possible that if they’re successful in doing this, a lot of other Republican governors will emulate this,’’ Gould added.

Here, in a state with a long history of powerful unions, Walker’s plan was upending life in the capital city.

Madison schools were closed yesterday after many employees called in sick to help lobby. Thousands of teachers, state workers, and students filled a square around the Capitol, chanting “kill the bill’’ and waving signs.

And a public hearing on the issue that had started at 10 a.m. on Tuesday ran through the night and into yesterday afternoon.

For his part, Walker said he did not believe that most Wisconsin residents had a problem with his proposals. Walker said he has spoken with plenty of private employees who told of paying far more for retirement plans and health care than he is seeking from state workers.

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