Giving as well as he got, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday traveled to Capitol Hill to defend his efforts to balance his state’s budget by renegotiating public-worker contracts and eliminating most collective bargaining rights for many state employees.
Democrats at a House hearing and liberal protesters targeted the Republican governor in his first public appearance in Washington since his budget-cutting moves put him at the epicenter of a raging national debate over spending, unions and workers’ rights.
“By nearly any measure, our requests are quite reasonable,” Mr. Walker told a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. “The choices we are making now in Wisconsin will make sure our children are not left picking up the pieces of the broken state budget left behind.”
Legislation requiring public-sector workers to pay more for health care and other benefits and stripping many of their collective bargaining rights is now held up in court. Mr. Walker came under fire from many Democrats on the committee for picking a fight with unions and choosing to attack what some called the “right” of government employees to bargain.
Democrats weren’t the only ones protesting Mr. Walker’s efforts. At least four members of the anti-war group Code Pink were brandishing signs supporting Wisconsin teachers and other state employees. The National Education Association, the Service Employees International Union and the nonpartisan group Common Cause each released statements at the hearing condemning the Republican efforts in Wisconsin.
Mr. Walker said he was surprised by the national attention his state received during the battle.
He defended his actions, painting a vivid picture of why he felt serious reforms are justified. Wisconsin, he said, faces a $3.6 billion shortfall in its next budget. Forty-three other states and the District also face significant budget gaps totaling more than $111 billion, according to the committee.
Under Mr. Walker’s plan, state workers would contribute 5.8 percent to their pensions and 12.6 percent for their health insurance premiums. Those measures, he said, will save the state $700 million each year. Without them, he said “massive layoffs” or huge increases in state taxes were the only remaining options.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin also testified, offering what Rep. Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat and his party’s ranking committee member, called a “study in contrasts.”
Mr. Shumlin, the state’s first-term Democratic governor, said he negotiated with his state’s public-sector unions and struck a deal for workers to pay more for health insurance, retirement and other pieces of their benefits packages. He said he was able to do this because he “used maple syrup, not vinegar” during negotiations and asked the unions to sit down at the table.
He, too, said he considers collective bargaining to be a basic “right” of Americans and blamed Wall Street for creating the country’s economic mess.
“I do not believe that those to blame for our current financial troubles are our law enforcement officers, firefighters and other state employees. The notion that a state trooper making a middle- class living … is responsible for this problem is simply false,” he said.
Democrats agreed, with some insinuating that Mr. Walker’s real motive is an effort to dismantle unions so President Obama will have a tougher time winning the state in 2012.
Mr. Walker pointed out that, with the exception of Postal Service workers, federal employees are not permitted to collectively bargain.
“These facts beg the question as to why the protesters are in Wisconsin and not in Washington, D.C.,” he said.