Wisconsin Republicans face new hurdle in union battle

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans face a new hurdle in their campaign to curb public sector unions’ power.

So far Republicans have managed win after win — overcoming massive protests and outmaneuvering Democrats to push their plan through the Legislature, then finding a way to at least temporarily get around a court order that would have kept the explosive union bargaining law from taking effect.

Now they face another court order blocking the law, which would strip most public employees of nearly all their collective bargaining rights. And this time the judge has said there will be consequences for violators.

Still, the matter is far from settled. Republicans haven’t said what their next move will be, but it’s likely the law’s legitimacy will be decided by the state Supreme Court.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi chastised state officials Tuesday for ignoring her earlier order to halt the law’s publication.

“Apparently that language was either misunderstood or ignored, but what I said was the further implementation of (the law) was enjoined,“ Sumi said during a hearing. ”That is what I now want to make crystal clear.“

Republican lawmakers pushed the law through the Legislature earlier this month despite massive protests that drew up to 85,000 people to the state Capitol. After diffusing a Democratic filibuster in the Assembly, Republicans used a parliamentary procedure in the Senate to circumvent a Democratic boycott meant to prevent a vote.

Walker signed the bill on March 11, triggering a number of lawsuits from opponents. Sumi issued a temporary restraining order blocking Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the bill — typically the last step before a law takes effect.

Republicans got around that by having the Legislative Reference Bureau, another state agency, publish the bill on Friday. They declared victory, saying the law went into effect on Saturday.

Sumi’s order on Tuesday told state officials to stand down from any further action to put the law into effect. This time, she warned that anyone who defied it would face sanctions. She did not say what those sanctions might be.

“Wisconsin working families hope that Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the Legislature will finally begin to respect our state’s judicial process and reverse any damage they’ve done to the working families of our state,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said in a statement.

Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, Walker’s top aide, issued a statement saying the agency will evaluate the judge’s order. State Department of Justice spokesman Steve Means said the agency continues to believe the law was properly published and is in effect.

Dane County Democratic District Attorney Ismael Ozanne — the plaintiff in the lawsuit heard Tuesday — argued the reference bureau can’t publish a law without a date from the secretary of state. The district attorney asked Sumi to declare the law had not been published, but she refused to rule, saying she wants to gather more testimony.

Attorneys for the Department of Justice, which is representing the Republicans, contend the case means nothing because legislators are immune from lawsuits and Sumi has no authority to intervene in the legislative process.

“Her action today again flies in the face of the separation of powers between the three branches of government,” Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said in a statement.

Sumi is set to hear more arguments on Friday on the law’s publication — or lack thereof — and whether GOP legislative leaders violated the state’s open meetings law. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court is considering whether to take up an appeals court’s request to hear the case.

The law requires most public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance. It also takes away their rights to collectively bargain for anything except wage increases no greater than inflation.

Walker, who wrote the law, insists the measure is necessary to help close the state’s budget deficit. But Democrats see it as a political move to cripple unions, which are traditionally among their strongest campaign supporters.

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a Democrat, and several unions have filed lawsuits challenging the Senate vote, arguing the final law still contains fiscal components. Those lawsuits are still pending.

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