MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The new Republican governor of Wisconsin drew standing ovations on Wednesday when he addressed a meeting of one of the state’s largest business groups just two blocks from the Capitol building.
In a defiant 20-minute speech interrupted several times by ovations, Governor Scott Walker told the Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce trade group that his proposed budget repair bill, which has drawn tens of thousands of protesters here, was about more than just balancing the state’s next two-year budget.
“This battle is about our commitment to the future,” Walker said. “A commitment so that my children and your children and children all across this state aren’t saddled with the burden of excessive debt and out-of-control spending that this past generation just passed on to today’s generation.”
During the speech, which drew no protesters, Walker said his bill’s most controversial section, which would curb collective bargaining by public workers, was needed to provide certainty for the state’s future finances.
He also suggested his proposal would help state workers offset the higher health and pension costs he wants them to pay by allowing them to stop having their union dues deducted from their pay.
”What we’re asking for is very reasonable,“ he said. ”Pay a little bit more for health and a little bit more for pensions.
“But in return, we give them the true freedom of choice ... to decide whether or not they want those union dues automatically deducted from their payroll, which in many cases is up to a $1,000 a year, that instead they can keep in their pockets.”
Labor groups say Walker’s measure is union-busting cloaked in a budget measure. The higher health care and pension costs would cut the average worker’s annual take-home pay by thousands of dollars, they said.
Walker said the fight was not between his administration and state workers, but between his administration and labor leaders, many of them from outside the state.
“This is a battle with the big unions ... who are trying to come in and dominate this debate from out of this state because it’s not about their workers money it’s about their money,” Walker said.
“The tens of thousands of protesters -- at least those from Wisconsin -- who have been in our Capitol over the past two weeks have every right to be heard. But as the days continue and we see more and more protesters coming in from Chicago and Nevada and New Jersey and in particular Washington, D.C., I am not going to allow for one minute their voices to drown out the voices of the millions of taxpayers of this state.”
Some critics of Walker’s proposal have said he took campaign donations last year from out-of-state conservative groups that support his efforts to strip most bargaining rights from public unions.
Reporting by James Kelleher; Editing by Peter Bohan and Greg McCune