MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he is open to limiting collective bargaining rights for police and firefighters, who were excluded from the restrictions placed on nearly all other public employees two years ago.
Walker made the comments at a Monday speech to the Governmental Research Association. But his spokesman on Tuesday quickly backed away from them, saying Walker had no intention of pursuing such a proposal.
Police and firefighters were not included in the 2011 law that barred other public sector unions from collectively bargaining over anything other than base wage increases no greater than inflation. The law also forced those public workers, including teachers, to pay more for health care and contribute more to their pensions.
Walker has said in the past, and again on Monday, that he did not include police and firefighters in the proposal over concerns about being able to protect the public if officers went on strike or took other job actions.
"If I had one jurisdiction where somebody walked off, or didn't come to work or slowed down on things, and someone was injured or killed because of that — I said I can't deal with that," Walker said in the Monday speech.
But now, after the restrictions for other unions have been in place for two years, Walker said he's open to expanding them to police and firefighters. Walker has already taken away the ability of police and firefighters to negotiate over their health insurance plans.
"I think now, for those areas, having seen that the world didn't come to an end for other municipal employees and county employees, there might be a greater opening going forward because they'd say, 'hey, you know, things worked out,'" Walker said in the speech.
Evenson, Walker's spokesman, said Tuesday that the governor was not actively pushing the idea.
"This issue is not something Gov. Walker is pursuing," Evenson said in an email. "If the issue were to arise in the Legislature, the governor would take a look at it as he does with many other issues, but again this is not something he is pursuing."
Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly — Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Speaker Robin Vos — did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the statewide police union the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said if Walker's comments were a trial balloon for a potential 2016 presidential run, then he has made a "serious misstep."
"It is disappointing that public safety now appears to be taking a back seat to partisan presidential politics, and we hope the governor reconsiders his unfortunate position on this issue," Palmer said in a statement.
The WPPA, along with the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, endorsed Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in both his 2010 race against Walker and in the 2012 recall. Unions representing Milwaukee police and firefighters backed Walker.
Mahlon Mitchell, president of the statewide firefighters union, said he wasn't surprised by Walker's comments. Mitchell was Barrett's running mate in the 2012 recall.
"You never know with this governor what you might see," Mitchell said. "Right now it's just a holding pattern. We just have to get prepared for the worst, it's all you can do."
Barrett has long called for treating police and firefighters the same as other public workers when it comes to collective bargaining rights.
Walker's comments about expanding the union limitations came in the same speech in which he likened his philosophy on public employee unions with that of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"The position I pushed is not unlike the principle that Franklin Delano Roosevelt — not exactly a conservative — pushed as well when it came to public sector collective bargaining," Walker said at the meeting, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. "He felt that there wasn't a need in the public sector to have collective bargaining because the government is the people. We are the people. And so what we've done is to be able to empower our great employees, to affirm them."
Phil Neuenfeldt, state president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said Walker's comparing himself to FDR was "laughably delusional." While FDR brought the country out of the Great Depression with a strong investment in workers and jobs programs, Neuenfeldt said Walker backed limitations on collective bargaining that divided workers and took away their ability to have a safe work environment.
Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com
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