MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin suspended enforcement of a new law reducing public sector union powers on Thursday after a judge ruled it had not taken effect, while Ohio enacted a similar measure curbing collective bargaining by state employees.
The Wisconsin announcement brought a new twist to political wrangling over the state’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 into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker.
The bill passed the state Assembly after non-appropriation parts were removed, allowing Republican senators under the legislature’s rules to approve it without the Democrats who had left Wisconsin to avoid a vote.
Tensions continued after Walker signed the bill, with Democrats pressing a legal challenge to the way it was passed and state officials pushing ahead with its implementation.
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.
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.
Similar legislation limiting collective bargaining and proposing other measures to curb unions or restrict benefits has been advanced in Tennessee and Michigan this year.
In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich signed on Thursday a controversial bill that curbs collective bargaining and bans strikes by about 360,000 public workers, one day after it received final approval from the legislature in Columbus.
“(The bill) gives local governments and schools powerful tools to reduce their costs so they can refocus resources on key priorities-like public safety and classroom instruction,” Kasich said in a statement.
While massive protests in Wisconsin grabbed most attention this year, Ohio is more important to the union movement, with twice the number of public sector union members.
The new law requires public employees such as firefighters, police officers and teachers to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums, and would get rid of automatic pay increases and replace them with merit or performance pay.
Ohio Democrats want to overturn the law in a referendum, banking on intense public opposition to the measure. Under Ohio law, the law does not take effect for 90 days.
Several other states are considering similar legislation and the issue is likely to be a factor in the 2012 elections.
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; additional reporting by Jim Lekrone in Columbus and Lauren Keiper in Boston; Editing by Jerry Norton and Anthony Boadle