Wisconsin contract talks stall amid union law fight

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker’s administration took steps Monday to adjust state workers’ paychecks to reflect a new collective bargaining law, while the state Justice Department asked a court to agree the law was in effect and stop cases related to blocking its implementation.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin school board association advised districts to hold off on any more contract talks given the ongoing uncertainty over whether the law is in effect. Many school districts, counties and municipalities had been rushing to reach deals before the law that takes away nearly all public employees’ bargaining rights kicked in.

Republican lawmakers pushed through passage of the law earlier this month despite massive protests that drew up to 85,000 people to the state Capitol and a boycott by Democratic state senators. Opponents immediately filed a series of lawsuits, and a hearing on one was scheduled Tuesday. The judge in that case had issued a restraining order barring Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law, typically the last step before it takes effect.

But at the request of a Republican Senate leader, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau posted the law on the Legislature’s website Friday. Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration and the Justice Department led by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the posting put the law into effect Saturday and work to implement it would begin immediately.

Along with removing most of public employees’ collective bargaining rights, the new law requires them to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, which amounts to an 8 percent pay cut.

Walker’s top aide Mike Huebsch said the administration was preparing a computer program to take out the new deductions and stop the deduction of union dues on paychecks state workers will receive April 21. The Department of Administration would stop that work if a court determined the law didn’t take effect Saturday, Huebsch said.

Also Monday, the state Department of Justice asked permission to withdraw its appeal of the restraining order barring La Follette from publishing the law. It said the order is now moot since the law was enacted without the secretary of state’s involvement.

But La Follette, the head of the office that posted the law, the Madison city attorney and others maintained it is not in effect until the secretary of state acts.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat, filed briefs Monday evening asking the judge for just such a declaration on Tuesday. Ozanne argues the secretary of state and the reference bureau work in tandem to publish laws. The secretary of state sets the publication date and the bureau executes publication on that day, he contends.

La Follette had set March 25 as the day of publication, but notified the bureau he had rescinded that date after the judge issued the restraining order.

“Mere electronic posting, absent the other steps, particularly the involvement of the secretary of state .... is itself meaningless and has no legal effect,” Ozanne wrote.

Given the difference of opinions, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards told districts that are still negotiating with teachers not to take any official action until the courts resolve the dispute.

“Because we have a difference of opinion within the state administration, the safest place to be is to not enter an agreement at the present time,“ said Bob Butler, an attorney for the school boards association. “I’m very hesitant to tell someone to go out and do something a portion of the state is telling you not to do.”

Any deals reached since Saturday could later be challenged if that turns out to have been the effective date of the law, he said.

Butler said he thought as many as 150 of the state’s 424 school districts either extended their current contracts or reached new deals before Saturday. About 200 took no action, and an additional 75 or so were still considering what to do, including some that were close to a deal before Friday’s unexpected action, he said.

At least two districts — Waunakee and Belleville — signed agreements last week, he said.

At least one school district canceled a Monday night meeting scheduled to talk about a new teacher contract, saying it didn’t want to act with uncertainty reigning about the state of the law.

Port Washington-Saukville School Board President Patty Ruth said in a news release that going forward given the circumstances “would create significant risks for our district, all of which can be avoided if we cancel the meeting until the courts have rendered their decisions on the various legal questions.”

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said he thought many communities that wanted to reach labor agreements before the law took effect did so before Saturday. He said others have chosen to hold on negotiating new contracts until they had a clearer sense how they would be affected under Walker’s pending two-year budget plan.

Walker has proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to schools, counties and local governments in his budget that would take effect in July. He has argued union concessions are needed to help those affected make up for his proposed aid cuts.

A court hearing remains scheduled for Tuesday on a lawsuit filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who claims the state open meetings law was violated the night the Senate passed the bill. An appeals court had asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take up that case after the state appealed the district court judge’s temporary restraining order.

But Monday, the Justice Department sought to withdraw its appeal and cancel the hearing on the grounds it was moot after the law was published. The state Supreme Court has not yet decided whether it wants to hear the case.

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Sun Prairie, Wis., contributed to this report.

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