Walker’s Bill Gives Wisconsin Police a Pass on Pension Payments

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker exempted police and firefighters from a bill limiting collective bargaining to avoid jeopardizing public safety, a spokesman said. A similar bill in Ohio includes the groups.

If Walker’s bill passes, public-safety workers would pay little or nothing toward their pensions and negotiate raises as a group. All other state employees would pay 5.8 percent of their wages toward their pensions, and voters would have to approve raises that outpace inflation. Those in uniform would pay 6 percent of their health-care premiums; civilians would pay about 12 percent.

Labor actions could interrupt services if the measure’s bargaining limits are imposed on police and firefighters’ unions, Walker has said. His motive in excluding them from the bill was “contingency planning to ensure public safety,” Chris Schrimpf, his spokesman, said in an e-mail.

States face deficits that may reach a combined $125 billion in the next fiscal year. Republican governors including Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie are trying to change rules for collective bargaining and worker contributions for health care and pensions.

The governors say the changes will let state and local governments manage budget cuts. Critics say the efforts are “union busting.”

Walker excluded police to avoid losing backing for his bill because emergency workers enjoy public support, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the 11,000-member Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

‘Politically Motivated’

“It was politically motivated more than anything else,” Palmer said in a telephone interview from Madison.

His union didn’t endorse Walker last year; all but four of 314 police and fire unions in state backed the Democratic candidate, said Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Walker.

“I can’t have the possibility anywhere in the state of Wisconsin that if there was a fire or a crime or anything else that there would be one gap, one interruption in services out there because there’s no way we’re going to put the public safety at risk,” Walker said in a Feb. 21 press conference.

Leaders of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and the 3,000-member Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin said their members oppose the bill and support protests that have swarmed around the Capitol in Madison since last week.

“It’s an attack on the middle class,” Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, said in a telephone interview from Madison. “There’s a fire in the house of labor, and where there’s a fire, the fighter goes and puts it out.”

Avoiding the Ax

It is illegal in Wisconsin and Ohio for police and firefighters to strike.

The Ohio bill would allow state and local government workers to bargain for wages only and eliminate binding arbitration for resolving contract disputes. The restrictions would be applied to police and firefighter unions. Lawmakers worried that contracts would force governments to fire emergency workers, rather than reducing costs in other ways, said Republican Senator Shannon Jones, the bill’s sponsor.

“Our public employees are good people, and the last thing they would want to do is put people’s lives in danger,” Jones said in an interview.

The Ohio bill also would replace salary schedules with merit pay, require workers to pay 20 percent of their health-care costs and prohibit governments from paying any part of employees’ share of pension costs.

The Wisconsin legislation would restrict collective bargaining for civilian public employees to wages only, and voters would have to approve raises higher than the increase in inflation based on the Consumer Price Index.

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