By Kevin Bogardus - 04/14/11 07:13 PM EDT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday said his move to end collective bargaining rights for public workers was a modest request to make, given the state's fiscal woes.
Walker appeared Thursday on Capitol Hill for the first time since his standoff with labor began earlier this year. Testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the governor set out to define his budget plan as a reasonable measure to shore up the state's budget despite protests from labor groups.
Walker said Wisconsin is asking state workers to contribute more of their own money to their pensions and health insurance costs in order to save local governments millions of dollars.
The governor cited the example that most federal employees don’t have collective bargaining rights and often pay more for their health and pension benefits than their state counterparts. Walker recounted the story of his brother, a banquet manager and part-time bartender, reacting to his budget proposal, telling the governor, “I would love to have that deal.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member, accused Walker of hurting workers.
"In my opinion, it is shameful to play politics with American workers and their families," Cummings said in his opening statement. "We should be helping these workers, not attacking them, because they are the engine and the author of the American recovery."
Walker said his controversial budget plan will improve the performance of the Wisconsin government.
“We are showing that Wisconsin is open for business,” Walker said.
Committee Republicans praised Walker for his budget plan and said it will help get the state’s finances right.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said the governor “has a genuine commitment to reform” and that he wanted to prevent “a fiscal calamity” in his state. Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) introduced Walker to the committee and said the governor’s supporters love him and thank him for the job he has done.
Walker said other governors have limited collective bargaining rights to make their state government more efficient. He cited the example of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a possible 2012 presidential contender, for his executive order in 2005 that restricted public workers’ collective bargaining rights.
Democrats sought to contrast Walker’s record though with their invited witness, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D). Like Wisconsin, Vermont has a projected budget shortfall, but Shumlin has worked with public-sector unions when recommending spending cuts. He recommended using “maple syrup,” not “vinegar,” in budget negotiations.
“If you want to balance your budget, you bring people in. You talk to them. You have a dialogue,” Shumlin said.
Walker had to fend off accusations from Democrats of targeting labor for political reasons and was questioned about a prank phone call he took from a person impersonating conservative financier David Koch.
“It is not about [fighting labor] for me," Walker said. "It is about balancing the budget, not just now but for the future.”
Walker said promoting public workers based on the merits, rather their seniority, would help improve government performance.
The hearing often grew testy as Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) asked Walker about his support from “secret donor groups” and said the governor should denounce outside political groups funding television ads in support of his agenda.
“If you want to do a political stunt, go ahead,” Walker said in the exchange with Braley.
Democrats were not buying Walker's claim that his budget bill was not political. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) hounded the governor, asking him repeatedly what money would be saved by stripping public workers’ collective bargaining rights.
“It’s not. It’s a political issue,” Kucinich said.
Walker's legislation has been held up in a court challenge, and the political fight is far from over.
Labor has unified behind a recall effort for several of Wisconsin state senators who supported the bill, and a state Supreme Court race appears to be heading for a recount after the conservative incumbent justice, David Prosser, was tagged as a Walker ally. Prosser is leading in the vote count against challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, whom liberals lined up behind.
Union members from Wisconsin were in the audience at the hearing, including Mahlon Mitchell, a firefighter and state president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. Mitchell was not a fan of Walker’s testimony.
“I have heard a lot of his talking points before,” Mitchell said. “He’s a politician. He has a script to stick to.”
The firefighter said the governor’s actions were not about balancing the budget but rather an attack on labor.
“This is about union-busting. … It is an attack on the middle class,” Mitchell said.