Wisconsin suspends enforcement of anti-union law

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) – Wisconsin Republicans said on Thursday they would suspend enforcement of a new law reducing public sector union powers, hours after a state judge’s terse order stating the act had not taken effect.

The announcements brought new twists to the political wrangling over Wisconsin’s budget that has sparked massive pro-union demonstrations and made the state the epicenter of a national debate over similar proposals in several U.S. states.

It also could force Wisconsin to alter budget plans for the current fiscal year and the two-year period that starts July 1, said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin governmental affairs professor and former state lawmaker.

“Every day the judge’s TRO stays in effect, it’s going to screw up their accounting,” Lee said.

Wisconsin had begun preparations to increase healthcare and pension contributions made by unionized state workers and halt automatic union dues deductions under the law approved by the Republican-led legislature and signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker.

Administration Department Secretary Mike Huebsch said he would suspend implementation of the law, though the department believed the bill has been legally published and is law.

The state Justice Department said in a statement that “we expect a higher court will need to weigh in on the fundamental issues of constitutional law and judicial power that these proceedings have put to the test.”

The proposals faced heated debate in the state Assembly and non-appropriation parts of the bill were removed, allowing Republican senators under the legislature’s rules to approve it without the Democrats who had left Wisconsin to avoid a vote.

The tensions continued after Walker signed the bill into law with Democrats pressing a legal challenge to the way it was passed and state officials contending it had taken effect and pushing ahead with its changes despite a court order.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi enjoined publication of the law by the secretary of state in mid March and reinforced that on Thursday in a two-page court order.

“Based on the briefs of counsel, the uncontroverted testimony, and the evidence received” the act “has not been published … and is therefore not in effect,” Sumi wrote.

OTHER BILLS, PROTESTS

Similar legislation limiting collective bargaining and proposing other measures to curb unions or restrict their benefits has been advanced in Tennessee, Michigan and elsewhere this year.

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich is expected to sign a bill Thursday that restricts collective bargaining rights for some 350,000 public employees and bans strikes. Opponents have the right to seek support to put the plan to a referendum vote in November.

In New Hampshire, the latest state where legislators are trying to limit public sector union collective bargaining, thousands of protesters rallied outside the state capitol in Concord on Thursday to oppose budget bills they say curb the rights for state workers.

Aside from spending cuts, a companion bill to the House budget which passed on Wednesday included an amendment that would put salaries and benefits of public workers at the discretion of their employer if a contract expires without resolution.

The move was proposed as a way to trim state employee wage costs by $50 million.

(Reporting by Jeff Mayers, David Bailey, James B. Kelleher and Lauren Keiper; Editing by Jerry Norton and Anthony Boadle)

Wisconsin suspends enforcement of anti-union law