Wisconsin legislature sent a $72 billion
biennial budget bill to Governor Walker's desk last week, giving him just four
days to process and sign the budget before his July 13 scheduled presidential
announcement. The bill slashes $250 million from the , advances school vouchers and the
corporate privatization of University of Wisconsin System Wisconsin public schools, and is chock full of public policy
provisions that did not have public hearings or public input.
Although the governor has recently been projecting surpluses for the next fiscal year, the drastic cuts in state programs will still leave the state facing a structural deficit of some $490 million, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project.
Last weekend, the Joint Finance budget-writing committee produced a large addition to the budget, an anonymous "999 motion" that took 24 pages just to summarize. Tucked into the motion were major changes to
's open records law, a direct
response to CMD's lawsuit against the governor over his efforts to axe
"the search for truth" and the Wisconsin Idea from the budget. On
Tuesday, Wisconsin spokeswoman Laurel
Patrick acknowledged for the first time that the governor's office
played a role in developing the records proposal. Walker
While a public furor stopped these devastating changes, a number of other last-minute additions that will make life more difficult for
's working families remain. Wisconsin
The budget bill:
Eliminates a long-standing provision in state law requiring the minimum wage to be a true "living wage;"
Opens a giant loophole in the state law that mandates one rest day per week for many blue-collar workers;
Lowers wages for construction workers in the state by drastically reducing the scope of the state's prevailing wage laws; and
Allows payday lenders full reign to prey on low-wage workers by expanding the range of predatory loans and other products they offer and allowing them to give financial advice.
Statutory Language on Living Wage, Day of Rest Gets Axed
After a month of public silence amid apparent intra-party gridlock, state Republican leaders used the quiet news period around Independence Day weekend to add several new "budget" items that pander to low-road employers wanting lower wages and fewer worker protections.
One new provision rewrites the state's 100-year old minimum wage law that requires employers to pay a "living wage… sufficient to enable the employee… to maintain himself or herself under conditions consistent with… reasonable comfort, reasonable physical well-being, decency, and moral well-being" (though current state administrative regulations now interpret "reasonable" as "minimum"). Existing law both allows and requires state workforce experts to determine if the current minimum wage is appropriate. Past governors have used the law to raise the state's minimum wage when the legislature has refused to act.
Last fall, 100 minimum wage workers submitted evidence to the state that the current $7.25 minimum wage failed the living wage test. In response, the governor's workforce agency responded with the preposterous claim that it "found no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage."
Under the rewrite, the requirement that the minimum wage be a living wage will disappear.
According to Jennifer Epps-Addison of Wisconsin Jobs Now, which helped the workers make their case, "Scott Walker would rather force working people to use food stamps instead of just making sure they're paid decently. It doesn't make any sense until you remember that he's working for corporate lobbyists, not the people."
Another last-minute addition revives a failed 2014 proposal originally crafted "on behalf of" Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce that "allows" workers to "volunteer" to give up the one day off in seven that current state law requires certain employers to maintain. Workforce advocates are rightly concerned that such decisions, particularly when workers are not protected by a union contract, will not be entirely voluntary.
Higher Wages for Skilled Construction Workers Repealed
It’s hard to improve the economy and grow wages when your economic program revolves around cutting them.
famously cut the wages of 320,000
public-sector workers by about 8 percent in 2011, and has ensured only minimal
increases below the rate of inflation since then. Other
"reforms"--including his ALEC-modeled 2015 "right to work"
bill--will not only crush wages for the state's 180,000 private sector union
workers but will also put downward pressure on wages and benefits for all
workers in the state. Not surprisingly, Walker ranks 42nd in federal wage growth,
again the lowest in the Wisconsin Midwest.
Now the wages of 116,000 construction workers are under attack. Republicans in the legislature had tried to repeal prevailing wage through stand-alone legislation earlier this year with fake studies and misleading spin, but could not get it passed until the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity turned up the heat with a radio ad blitztargeting Republicans who had their doubts.
The proposed changes will repeal prevailing wage requirements for all municipal, school district, and local sewerage district projects and remove the determination of prevailing wages for remaining state projects from the state agency that currently administers the program. Two Republican state senators and all the Democrats opposed the changes, but every other Senate Republican toed the anti-union line and the amendment passed 17-16.
Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout told Wisconsin Public Radio, "We have a serious wage problem in this state while across the border in
the economy and wages are going
gang-busters. These policies are just not working." Minnesota
A Budget, Then a Presidential Announcement
The 999 motion also included a grab bag of corporate favors. It weakens the state's lead paint standard. It prohibits any town or county from demanding more insurance from pipeline companies to cover possible spills, barring
from requiring Enbridge to increase
its general liability insurance for a massive expansion of
its Dane County Wisconsin pipeline. The Canadian firm wants
to triple the flow of oil through its existing "Keystone alternative"
pipeline and claims its $100 million insurance policy is adequate, even though
its 2010 Kalamazoo spill has cost $1.2 billion to clean up.
Another change will allow payday loan operators to expand into new product lines. Payday lenders have been slammed for exploiting the poor and "unbanked" with astronomical interest rates and fees. The 999 motion provides them broad new authority to sell additional financial products and services, including insurance and annuities, and "any financial or consumer finance service subject to regulation."
Fred Nepple, former General Counsel for
's Office of the Commissioner of
Insurance explained to CMD that the payday lending proposal was a bad idea.
"You don't sell annuities to people who are living paycheck to
"It is telling that payday lenders pushed for this in the dark hallways rather than in the light of public hearings. It deserves to be vetoed," said Nepple.
Citizens did have two small budget-bill victories: not only were the open records law changes removed, but a sustained push-back from retirees preserved the governance structure of the state's retirement system oversight board, which oversees one of the best-funded and best managed pension systems in the nation.
> The article above was written by Jody Knauss and Mary Bottari, PR Watch/Report.