So now collective bargaining <i>isn't</i> a fiscal matter?

I guess this is what you might call the nuclear option.

State Senate Republicans abruptly voted last week to strip "non-fiscal" items from the budget repair bill and voted 18-1 to approve the collective bargaining changes that are the most controversial aspects of a thoroughly controversial bill.

The Senate vote, and the subsequent Assembly passage, will certainly be challenged legally, and will either be reinforced or rendered moot by the courts. State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the action violated the state's Open Meetings Law because lawmakers failed to post 24-hour notice of the meeting. We'll see.

My initial hunch was that this is the ploy Republicans needed to smoke Senate Democrats out and get them to return. Once they did, I thought the Senate would begin proceedings on the original budget repair bill, jettison the one passed this past week, and eventually pass the original version. Okay, so some of my "deduces" are wild.

In a statement released after Senate vote, Gov. Scott Walker put the blame at the feet of the "Fleeing 14," the 14 State Senate Democrats who fled the state to prevent the quorum needed for a vote on the original bill, which also would have curtailed collective bargaining power for state employees.

Said Walker: "The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused. In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."

The Governor must have been feeling his oats, as his office announced that 10,100 new private sector jobs were created in Wisconsin in January, his first month in office, but I can't help but think the Senate action is a Pyrrhic victory that will end a few legislative careers. In fairness to the voters, the time to raise this point about collective bargaining would have been last fall's gubernatorial campaign, not the aftermath. Gov. Walker had a mandate to fix the state's fiscal problems, but he never campaigned to strip public employees of their collective bargaining power. It represents a classic overreach.

It certainly raises the stakes for April's Wisconsin Supreme Court election, where a victory by conservative justice David Prosser over progressive challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg presumably would ensure that passage of this amended bill receives high court benediction – if a court challenge gets that far. Of course, the reverse also is true if Kloppenburg wins, which will no doubt inject some life into this race.

I'm no lawyer, and I would presume the GOP's legal brain trust vetted this one very carefully, but it's certainly inconsistent to initially argue that collective bargaining has a fiscal impact in Madison and throughout the state in the original budget repair bill, and then have nothing but collective bargaining features in a stripped down, "non-fiscal" bill that did not require a quorum.

Even amid falling poll numbers, Walker has scored some points in noting the operational handcuffs that some (not all) work rules gained in collective bargaining have placed on municipal and school officials. But I repeat: they agreed to grant them in negotiations with local unions. It's up to an engaged electorate and hard-nosed negotiators on behalf of taxpayers to prevent this kind of foolishness, as the Milwaukee School Board recently did when the Milwaukee teachers' union finally dropped its lawsuit to restore Viagra coverage to its health benefits package.

This is proof that it can be done by people who have some resolve, but local units of government seem to be saying: "Governor, save us from ourselves. Stop us before we make another knuckle-headed concession!"

Man up (and woman up), already.

I have applauded Walker's stimulative economic policies, which could yet save him from being recalled, but his stubbornness on collective bargaining is unnecessarily tearing our state apart, pitting neighbor against neighbor and brother against sister. State employees are willing to make concessions on their health care benefits and pensions – their part of the shared sacrifice necessary to balance the state budget – but they should be able to get that back, with the aid of collective bargaining power, when the economy strengthens and produces more tax revenue. (Ten thousand new jobs a month will pump up the number of taxpayers feeding government coffers, and ease the pressure to make budget cuts! Democrats should note that when the 2011-13 biennial budget is debated.)

Regarding the impact of the Senate's actions on endangered state government jobs, the Governor has rescinded his order to notify state workers of pending layoffs, so at least some good has come from yesterday's legislative outcome. Yet the fight over collective bargaining will continue in forthcoming recall elections and in the next gubernatorial election – guaranteed – as Democrats take their fight to the Courts, the floor of the Legislature, and to the ballot box.

A word to the wise: there is a right way and a wrong way to reverse this. Expressing your disappointment through your consumer choices is fine, but harassing businesses and staging illegal public worker strikes will only alienate other Wisconsinites and play into the Governor's hands. In fact, he might not mind it if you did those things because he could turn that against you, so THINK before you act! It's going to require some patience and deft political maneuvering to restore collective bargaining for public employees, and that means playing within the rules even though you believe Walker and the Republicans did not.

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