At his State of the State speech earlier this month, Gov. Scott Walker reiterated talking points from the campaign trail that "tough choices" need to be made to reform state government.
If Walker's budget repair bill passes, those tough choices, likely in the form of layoffs for union employees, will be passed from the state to local municipalities.
With the state's top union leadership saying over the past several days that they are willing to accept Walker's proposal for higher contributions for their health insurance costs and pensions, Walker and other Republicans have been asked about why the union concessions are not enough. Their response is that the elimination of collective bargaining rights outside of salaries, except for the unions that represent police officers, firefighters and the State Patrol, is necessary as outlined in Walker's budget repair bill.
And why is that?
"Unfortunately, education and shared revenue will take significant cuts," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters at a news conference Saturday, referring to state tax money that is shared with school districts and municipalities throughout the state. "The only way local governments will be able to handle it is without collective bargaining."
Fitzgerald's comments came on the sixth day of protests in and around the Capitol following the introduction of Walker's budget repair bill. The difference Saturday is that for the first time there was a crowd of several thousand pro-Walker demonstrators.
Walker supporters held signs reading "Liberals and unions make me sick," "The gravy train shops here," "I couldn't be here yesterday because I was working," a reference to those employees, many of them teachers, who stayed away from work to protest at the Capitol during the past week.
Signaling to the tea party crowd that Madison is ground zero for the public employee union-busting movement. Tim Phillips, executive director of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said supporters would bring "fiscal responsibility to the state."
"Then, in two to three weeks, we are going to win in Ohio," Phillips said of efforts to dismantle unions elsewhere in the country. "We are going to win for the American people because of you people here."
A Walker supporter, who would only identify himself as John, citing safety concerns because of "union thugs," said Walker's request to bring union workers' benefits and wages in line with the private sector is not too much to ask.
"He is not asking for their jobs," the man said. "We find that entirely reasonable."
Eliminating almost all collective bargaining rights for unions in the budget repair bill would lay the groundwork for municipalities like Madison and Dane County to manage with fewer dollars coming from the state in the 2011-2013 budget that begins July 1. Walker has not yet introduced his budget, but plans to do so on March 1.
State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, said Saturday that Walker's plan will force local governments to make the layoffs. The governor has made a point of saying that his budget repair bill as written avoids them.
"They want to dump it on us," said Hulsey, who was elected to the Assembly in November. He has been a member of the Dane County Board and will be until April. "They are pushing the strike down to us."
Hulsey cites a recent study by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a Glendale-based left-leaning think tank, that says 9,000 to 11,000 workers will lose their jobs if unions are stripped of their collective bargaining rights and local governments are forced to choose between providing services, funding education and continuing to pay union wages to their workers.
"There's not enough money to go around," Hulsey said.
The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for a comment Saturday.
Along with the tea party rally, there were many thousands more pro-union supporters at the Capitol Saturday.
UW-Madison men's track coach Ed Nuttycombe and his wife were among those who showed support for unions.
"In the last week we've started putting the pieces together," Nuttycombe said. "It looks pretty suspicious when you attack certain unions and not others."
At numerous press conferences since first introducing his budget repair bill Feb. 11, Walker has said the upcoming budget will not include any furlough days or layoffs. Failure to pass the budget repair bill, he said, would force worker layoffs.
"He is saying if we don't pass this, there will be layoffs," said Dona Everingham of Madison, a pro-union supporter. "But what he is doing will still force layoffs. He's just pushing it down to the local level so he doesn't look bad."
Layoffs at the local level would not surprise union workers, said Cheryl Bergemann, a union member from suburban Milwaukee.
"They know what is happening. That's why so many of them are here," Bergemann said. "When they lose their jobs, where are they supposed to go?"