As reported by Yahoo News, having declared that Wisconsin’s divisive union law is not really a law yet, a judge was set to return to one of the underlying questions dogging the measure, whether Republicans violated the state’s open meetings law during the frenzied run-up to passage.
Republican Governor Scott Walker’s administration reluctantly suspended efforts to enact the law after Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi unexpectedly declared the measure had not been properly published. The move marked another round in a messy legal fight over the law, which requires most public workers to pay more for their benefits and strips away most of their collective bargaining rights.
Democrats and unions have filed three lawsuits challenging the law. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne’s action has taken center stage so far. He alleges Republicans did not provide the proper public notice when it convened a special committee to amend the plan before its passage.
The judge is scheduled to take more testimony on the open meetings allegations. It’s unclear when Sumi may rule, but any decision almost certainly will trigger a storm of appeals that could stretch to the state Supreme Court.
State Justice Department attorneys contend the Senate’s internal rules trump the open meetings law. Sumi’s authority is limited to constitutional questions; an open meetings violation does not rise to that level, they say. Plus, they argue, Ozanne cannot sue Republican legislators because state lawmakers are immune from civil actions while the Legislature is in session.
The collective bargaining law has been a flashpoint of contention since Walker introduced it in mid-February. Under the law, most public sector workers must contribute more to their pensions and health care, changes that amount to an 8 percent pay cut. The measure also prohibits them from collectively bargaining on all work conditions except wage increases up to the rate of inflation. Walker has said the law is needed to help the state balance a $137 million deficit and give local governments enough flexibility with their employees to withstand deep cuts in state aid coming in the next two-year budget. Democrats see the law as an attempt to weaken unions, which are among the party’s strongest campaign supporters. Tens of thousands of people turned up at the state Capitol for protests that went on for three weeks, and Senate Democrats fled to Illinois to block a vote in that chamber.
To get around that roadblock, Republicans called a special committee meeting on March 9 and stripped the fiscal elements out of the bill, enabling the Senate to vote without the Democrats. The Assembly passed the bill the next day, and Walker signed it into law on March 11.