In a move that could be a preview of what's to come in cash-strapped states, Wisconsin's newly elected Republican governor announced a sweeping plan on Friday that would cut benefits for state employees, including those in the University of Wisconsin system, and eradicate the collective-bargaining rights that academic employees won just two years ago.
The proposal by Gov. Scott Walker is aimed at plugging a $137-million hole in the current budget, and assisting in closing a $3.6-billion shortfall projected for the next biennial budget.
"We must take immediate action to ensure fiscal stability in our state," Mr. Walker said on Friday as he released details of his "budget repair" bill. "This is ultimately saying we have a choice. We can do this, or we can see thousands of public-sector employees laid off."
Under the bill, government workers would contribute to half the cost of their pension, about 5.8 percent of their pay, and pay at least 12.6 percent of health-care premiums, up from about 6 percent now.
But perhaps the most significant part of the legislation is what it would do to collective bargaining in the state. While the measure would significantly curtail that privilege for the vast majority of state employees, it would specifically remove the right of the university system's faculty and staff members to bargain collectively.
That right was just won in 2009 under a bill signed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. Since then, faculty members on two University of Wisconsin campuses, Eau Claire and Superior, have voted in favor of collective bargaining, and elections are close to being held on several other campuses, according to Mark Evenson, vice president of the higher-education group for the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin.
"We knew during the election campaign that Walker wasn't friendly to labor unions, but we weren't sure that he'd actually go through with a pretty radical version of what he talked about," Mr. Evenson, a professor of Spanish on the system's Platteville campus, said in an interview on Sunday.
If the unions have any hope of defeating the governor's proposal, they will need to work quickly. It's scheduled to be introduced in the Legislature on Thursday. Because Republicans gained control of both chambers in the November election, the measure is expected to move easily through the Legislature.
Prepared for Opposition
Opponents are planning rallies for Tuesday at the State Capitol in Madison. Mr. Walker is prepared for the worst. He said on Friday that the Wisconsin National Guard will provide state services if necessary.
Unclear is the impact of the governor's proposal on the union of graduate students on the Madison campus. If they are considered academic employees, they would no longer be allowed to organize under Mr. Walker's plan. If they are considered state employees, the union could remain, but it would be severely limited in what it could bargain for. At most risk could be tuition remission.
Friday's announcement by Governor Walker comes after years of stagnant state higher-education budgets, which has hit the flagship Madison campus particularly hard. With faculty pay lagging behind its peers', Madison has been losing faculty members to well-off private institutions and lower-ranked public universities.
Today, about 18 percent of Madison's budget comes from the state, compared with 35 percent in 1974.
In response to declining state support, Madison's chancellor, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, proposed last fall a plan, dubbed the New Badger Partnership, that would free the university from state controls over various parts of its operation, allowing it to set differential tuition, provide more student aid, and compensate faculty members separately from pay plans for other state agencies.
Last week, the faculty senate at Madison adopted the principles of Ms. Martin's proposal. What, if anything, the governor will accept from the New Badger Partnership might become clearer later this month when he is scheduled to release his budget blueprint for the 2011-13 biennial.
If Madison is freed from the constraints of the state-employee system, faculty and staff there might be spared the worst of Mr. Walker's cutbacks in state benefits.
"The state budget is the big unknown," Judith N. Burstyn, a chemistry professor on the Madison campus and chair of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, said in an interview. She worries that the governor's actions will just make it more difficult to retain and recruit faculty members.
"Walker may have opened the state for business," she added, repeating a phrase the governor has used since he was elected, "but he also opened the gate for a brain drain from the state."
In a joint statement on Friday, the president of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, Charles Pruitt, and the president of the university system, Kevin P. Reilly, said the time has come for the state to give the university system the flexibility it needs to compete.
"We believe that universities freed from outdated laws and regulations will grow stronger," they said, "while those that remain overly constrained will fall further behind."