Basically, it’s like that infamous Calvin Johnson TD non-call that cost (or didn’t) the game for the Lions against the Bears last season. Politics is considered the regional pastime around these parts, and sometimes they’re uncannily similar to sports: an elite few, with the eyes of the state and the nation upon them, battling to a final conclusion… and sometimes the battle is paused in order to figure out what just happened according to arcane regulations. And no matter what’s decided, half the audience thinks it’s stupid.

(In fairness to Wisconsin, their laws make a lot more sense than the NFL’s definitions of receiver possession and pass interference.)

1. Was the collective-bargaining bill legal?

So last night the Wisconsin Republicans in the assembly passed a bill curtailing collective bargaining by some state unions, among other things. Of course, that was a part of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill all along, and Democrats charged that Walker was trying to break unions under the guise of fiscal management. So they left the state, denying the Republicans the quorum constitutionally required to pass a fiscal bill:

On the passage in either house of the legislature of any law which imposes, continues or renews a tax, or creates a debt or charge, or makes, continues or renews an appropriation of public or trust money, or releases, discharges or commutes a claim or demand of the state, the question shall be taken by yeas and nays, which shall be duly entered on the journal; and three-fifths of all the members elected to such house shall in all such cases be required to constitute a quorum therein.

The Republicans responded by stripping all the parts of the bill that would require a quorum under Section VIII of the Wisconsin constitution.

Today Scott Walker said, well of course the bill’s fiscal. Which might sound suspicious, but the word "fiscal" is being tossed around a lot. The bill obviously has "fiscal" implications, but as David Dayen points out, "it’s possible that a friendly judge could take this [i.e. the passage above] to mean only items that had a negative fiscal impact, or raise taxes." Does the bill do anything mentioned above?

The things in the old budget repair bill that did have been stripped, but a couple provisions in the new bill (PDF) seem to toe the line, though I’m not a lawyer (brackets in original):

In addition, create 1.0 PR additional unclassified position within the DOA. The State Budget office indicates that this position would act as a division administrator for facilities management…. The provision does not identify any new funding for salary, fringe benefits or supplies and services for this new position, and the State Budget Office indicates that existing funding would be used in 2010-2011. [It should be noted that once salary and fringe benefits are assigned to the new position, that amount would be included under standard budget adjustments for future years. The average salary and fringe benefits of current DOA division administrators is $143,100 annually.]

In other words, the translation seems to be well, it doesn’t make a (new) appropriation of public money now. One more:

The State Budget Office indicates that personnel from three separate employment areas would be moved from classified to unclassified service under the agencies identified…. The State Budget Office does not anticipate any salary or fringe benefits changes related to this reclassification. However, to the extent that the new unclassified positions are hired at a higher, or lower salary level than the deleted classified positions, there would be a fiscal effect.

Translation: if there would be a fiscal effect, it’s not our fault.

The focus seems to be on collective bargaining and health/retirement provisions in the new bill (in brief: employee contribution would go up and employer contribution would go down), but it’s those two opaque provisions that seem, at least to me, to be closest to being "fiscal."

I know all this sounds like gibberish, but it’s actually the crux of the matter, at least for now; the future of collective bargaining in Wisconsin, barring other possible court challenges, may rest on whether completely unrelated parts of the bill are constitutional or not.

The Milwaukee City Attorney also believes the bill is unconstitutional under home rule.

2. Was the meeting in which the bill was passed legal?

Basically, there are "open meeting" laws that say you have to give notice that you’re holding a government meeting: 24 hours, unless it’s two hours. Or no hours, in the case of special sessions.

Challenges based on these don’t seem like they’re going to fly, for the reasons mentioned here.


Photo: rochelle, et al (CC by 2.0)