Wisconsin anti-union law on hold for two months or more

Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) answers questions from the media after reading to Anna Greenman's third grade class at Hope Christian school Prima in Milwaukee, Thursday, March 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

Wisconsin’s polarizing union rights law will remain on hold for at least two months after a judge Friday said she would continue a restraining order blocking its enactment while she considers whether Republicans broke the state open meetings law in passing it.

Republicans had been pushing the law through despite a boycott by Democratic state senators and weeks of protests that drew as many as 85,000 people to the state Capitol. But they suffered a defeat Thursday when the same judge declared the law was not enacted last week as Republicans had claimed.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi on Friday extended indefinitely a temporary restraining order preventing the secretary of state from putting the law in effect. She is considering a lawsuit that says Republican lawmakers didn’t provide the proper public notice when they convened a special committee to amend the plan before its passage. The state has appealed the order to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but the court has not indicated whether it will take the case and has no deadline for making a decision.

Sumi heard testimony Friday on the lawsuit filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. He argues the law was broken because Republicans provided only two hours’ notice of their meeting when state law requires 24 hours’ notice. Republican legislative leaders say proper notice was given under Senate rules.

Sumi asked for additional arguments from attorneys by May 23, delaying a decision for nearly two months. Whatever decision Sumi eventually makes, one side or the other is likely to appeal in an attempt to get the case to the state Supreme Court.

Republicans also could pass the bill again to avoid questions over how they handled it the first time, although party leaders have said they have no plans to do that now.

Messages seeking reaction from Walker and Republican legislative leaders were not immediately returned Friday.

The collective bargaining law would force public employees to pay more for their health care and pension benefits, which amounts to an 8 percent pay cut. It also would eliminate their ability to collectively bargain anything except wage increases no higher than inflation.

Democrats have said the bill is meant to weaken the public employee unions that have been some of their strongest campaign supporters. After it was introduced in mid-February, tens of thousands of people turned up at the state Capitol for protests that went on for a month, 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 financial 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.

But with three lawsuits filed, Sumi issued the temporary restraining order preventing Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law, typically the last step before it can take effect.

Republicans leaders then persuaded the Legislative Reference Bureau to post the law online last Friday. They claimed that put the law into effect and began preparations to start deducting money from state workers’ salaries, beginning with their April 21 paychecks. That work had to be stopped after Sumi’s Thursday decision.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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