Walker defends Wis. collective bargaining law, calls it "progressive"

In this Feb. 17, 2011, file photo Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Seeking a counter to the thousands of protesters opposed to his plans to eliminate union bargaining rights for state workers, Walker found it in his email: The majority of notes, Scott Walker said, urged him to
AP Photo/Andy Manis, File
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to the media at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 17, 2011.
AP Photo/Andy Manis, File

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday defended the Wisconsin "budget repair" law stripping public workers of most of their collective bargaining rights, arguing that the legislation was "progressive, in the best sense of the word."

Speaking before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a hearing hosted by committee chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Walker argued that the budget repair bill was necessary to protect middle-class workers and make "a commitment to the future."

"This makes the government work better," Walker said during the hearing, in defense of the legislation.

Walker argued that he had been forced to choose between "massive layoffs and massive property tax increases," and "a different option - a progressive, in the best sense of the word, a progressive option."

The bill, which scales back the power of public employee unions and requires those workers to pay more for health care and pensions, inspired weeks' worth of protests at the state capital, and catapulted the debate over collective bargaining rights into the national spotlight. Some have argued the collective bargaining changes were masked as budget issues when, in fact, Walker could have resolved the states' financial problems without making those changes.

Walker argued that middle-class workers in Wisconsin supported the recent initiative - and that, ultimately, it protected them.

"Over the past several months, I have visited numerous factories and small businesses across Wisconsin," Walker said during his testimony. "On these tours, workers tell me that they pay anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent of their health insurance premium costs. The average middle class worker is paying more than 20 percent of his or her premium. Like my brother, they would love a plan like the one we are offering."

"Even federal employees pay more than twice what we are asking state and local government workers to pay and most of them don't have collective bargaining for wages or benefits," Walker added, noting that he wondered why protesters were in Wisconsin rather than Washington, D.C.

"We're showing that Wisconsin is open for business," he added.

Walker argued that because previous state lawmakers and governors had "deferred tough choices" about the budget, he had been forced to "make these critical decisions."

"When you think about what we're doing, we're really making a commitment to the future," he said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) took aim at Walker's position on union rights, and argued that, contrary to the governor's statements, the recent legislation would hurt middle-class workers, not help them.

"I strongly oppose efforts to falsely blame middle-class American workers for these current economic problems," said Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "This recession was not caused by them. Working America - firefighters, teachers and nurses - are not responsible for the reckless actions of Wall Street, which led to this crisis in the first place."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, challenged Walker on the how "repealing collective bargaining rights for public workers shows us anything about state debt."

"Your proposal would require unions to hold annual votes to continue representing their own members," Kucinich said. "Can you please explain to me how much money this provision saves for your state budget?"

"That particular part doesn't save any," Walker responded, after being pressed on the matter.

Kucinich also referenced a letter from the State of Wisconsin's Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan state budget agency, which asserted that Walker's efforts to repeal the state workers bargaining rights was a non-fiscal policy item that had no effect on the state budget.

Kucinich attempted to submit the letter into the record, but Issa did not immediately permit him to do so. 

Democratic Vermont Gov. Pete Shumlin, who sat on the panel with Walker, called on the Wisconsin governor to be straightforward about his ideologies.

"If you want to go after collective bargaining, just come out and say it," he said.