Source: NBC’s Meet the Press
Announcer: From NBC News in Washington, MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Protests grew in Madison, Wisconsin, Saturday after days of demonstrations there by pro-labor supporters. The standoff started two weeks ago after Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed a budget-balancing bill that would severely limit the rights of most public workers to collectively bargain. The bill would also require them to pay for 12.6 percent of the total cost of their healthcare premiums, and contribute almost 6 percent of their pay toward their pension benefits. Walker’s proposal is an attempt to close the $137 million deficit in this year’s state budget, a shortfall that is projected to grow to $3.6 billion in the next two years. And here with us now from Madison, the man in the middle of all this, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Governor, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.
GOV. WALKER: Good morning. Good to be with you, David.
MR. GREGORY: So that context is important because there’s collective bargaining, which you’d like to limit, and there are those–the specific contributions that you asked the unions. They said they would do that, they would meet those demands. So the question that comes up again and again is, if you want to deal with the budget and the deficit, why not take yes for an answer?
GOV. WALKER: Well, because we’ve seen that actions speak louder than words. For us to balance the $3.6 billion deficit we have–but not only now, but to ensure we can continue to do that in the future so our kids don’t inherit these same dire consequences–we’ve got to have assurances. And over the past two weeks, even after they made those promises, we’ve seen local union after local union rush to their school boards, their city councils, their technical school boards and rush through contracts in the past two weeks that had no contributions to the pension and no contribution to health care. And, in fact, in one case in Janesville, they actually were pushing through a pay increase. Actions do speak louder than words.
MR. GREGORY: But, Governor, you could have extended the bill–you could have extended the bill to those local government agencies. You chose not to.
GOV. WALKER: No, that’s just the opposite. I was a local government official for eight years. This bill precisely helps local governments, and it’s effective once it passes. In fact, we’re, we’re facing a $3.6 billion deficit. Like nearly every other state across the country, we’re going to have to cut more than a billion dollars from our schools and local governments. You know, in New York and California, where there are Democrats for governors, they’re doing that. The difference here is, with this budget repair bill, we give those schools and local governments more–almost a billion and a half dollars worth of savings. So the savings they get from our budget repair bill exceed the amount…
MR. GREGORY: But…
GOV. WALKER: …that they’re cut from the next state budget.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but let, let me be clear. If the unions, who, who it seems to me have been clear in saying that they would agree to those extra contributions, if they did that, and you say you’re concerned about the budget shortfall, why not accept that?
GOV. WALKER: But what I–my point is they can’t because they–the two people that suggested it are statewide union leaders. There are a thousand-plus municipalities, there’s four–more than 424 school districts, there’s 72 counties. I know–I used to be a county executive for eight years–I know that collective bargaining has to be done in every jurisdiction. They can’t guarantee that. And the actions of those local unions over the past two weeks show that. If they were serious about it, they would have offered up contracts that, that paid something for health care and something more for pensions. But they’re not. The, the reality is, even beyond the five and the 12, collective bargaining does have a cost. In Wisconsin, a great example of that is, we have, in many of our school districts, a requirement through collective bargaining contracts that they have to buy their health insurance from a company that’s owned by our state teacher’s union, WA Trust. Because of that, it costs them up to $68–$68 million more than if they could just buy it from the state employee healthcare plan. Those are real costs about putting real money in the classroom instead of into these collective bargaining agreements. And, for me, at the, at the county level…
MR. GREGORY: What’s one–Governor, let me just stop you.
GOV. WALKER: …I tried to avoid layoffs.
MR. GREGORY: But what, what’s wrong with collective bargaining? Let’s be clear. So unions organize public employees. They’re able to bargain, not just about wages, but also about health benefits and pension benefits. What you’re trying to do is say no, you can just collectively bargain when it comes to how much you make, but not those other benefits.
GOV. WALKER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: What’s so wrong with that, collective bargaining?
GOV. WALKER: Well, our proposal is less restrictive than the federal government is today. Under Barack Obama, he presides over a federal government where most federal employees do not have collective bargaining for, for benefits, nor for pay. So what we’re asking for is something less restrictive than what the federal government has. And, in fact, most federal employees…
MR. GREGORY: But I asked you a more specific question, which is what’s wrong with collective bargaining?
GOV. WALKER: Well, for us it’s, it’s about the fact that, again, as a local official, I can tell you personally time and time again because of collective bargaining when we had tough budgets in the past, when I was at the county presiding as the CO there, I tried to do modest changes of pension, I tried to do modest changes in health care. In fact, one year I literally tried to do a 35-hour work week to try and avoid massive layoffs and furloughs, and the union said, “Forget it.” Embodied, emboldened by the fact that they had collective bargaining agreements, they said, “Go ahead. Literally lay off 400 or 500 people.” And to me, laying off people in this economy is just completely unacceptable.
MR. GREGORY: Let me, let me ask you about…
GOV. WALKER: If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats don’t come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs. And that, to me, is just unacceptable.
MR. GREGORY: I don’t mean to–we have a satellite delay here, it sometimes gets us to bump up against each other. But I want to focus on inconsistencies in some of your argument. You do have exemptions here. You’ve said, “We’re going to pass this bill, but if you’re a cop or a firefighter you don’t have to make those extra contributions and you can still collectively bargain.” You seem to be picking winners and losers. Cops and firefighters don’t have to join this. Are they more important than a teacher who spends six hours a day with children in Wisconsin?
GOV. WALKER: No, this is not a value judgment about employees, but it is ultimately about preserving public safety. We saw two weeks ago, when this debate first started, teachers here in Madison walked off the job for three days. Now, that was an inconvenience for a lot of parents. I know I’ve got two public–kids in public school. Anytime you have a disturbance like that, it’s an inconvenience. But that, contrasted to the fact that even if there was one jurisdiction across the state where firefighters or police officers weren’t on the job in full force, I can’t afford to have a fire or crime committed where there’s a gap in service. And it ultimately just boils down to public safety.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but again, if you’re talking about austerity, and you want to deal with this budget deficit, doesn’t there have to be a sense of shared sacrifice, that everybody gets hurt?
GOV. WALKER: Well, there is. I’m a–well, I’m affecting my family about this, the legislature, my Cabinet–in fact, as elected officials, we’ll pay a higher dollar amount, a higher percentage because of these changes, to show that we’re that serious about it. Now, the, the statewide firefighters union president has come out and said they’d take the five and the 12. I would suggest to every mayor out there that they take them up on that. But in terms of making that change, I can’t afford to have a gap when it comes to public safety. I think that’s the one thing universally, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal or conservative, that people know that we cannot have a gap in, and that’s why we made that change in the bill.
MR. GREGORY: You were the subject of a crank call, a liberal blogger who was trying to draw you into, to a conversation about all of this.
GOV. WALKER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: And, and you had a serious conversation, not knowing who you were talking to. And you talked about Ronald Reagan…
GOV. WALKER: Right.
MR. GREGORY: …and him taking on the unions and the air traffic controllers. And you talked about putting this moment in some kind of context. This is part of what you said.
(Audiotape, February 23, 2011)
GOV. WALKER: In Wisconsin’s history–little did I know how big it would be nationally–in Wisconsin’s history I said, “This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history.”
MR. GREGORY: “Change the course of history.” And this is where critics say, you know, this governor is really more of an ideologue than someone who wants to solve a serious problem. You’re going farther than other Republicans who have taken on pension and healthcare costs to really go active–after collective bargaining. And by your own admission, you’re saying, “Well, there’s some areas where we just can’t afford that level of austerity.” But if you’re serious about austerity, doesn’t it have to be a situation where everybody gets affected?
GOV. WALKER: Well, in the end, the reason I made that comment, I do believe that this is our moment in Wisconsin’s history. It’s one of those where, for year after year after year, not just the last governor, but governors before, legislatures before, have kicked the can. They’ve taken one-time fixes to push the budget problems off into the future. We can’t do that. We’re broke. Like nearly every other state across the country, we’re broke. And it’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth in this state and said, “Here’s our problem. Here’s the solution,” and acted on it. Because, if we don’t, we fail to make a commitment to the future. Our children will face even more dire consequences than what we face today.
MR. GREGORY: But, Governor, if you, if you say you’re broke…
GOV. WALKER: So I, I make no apology for the fact that this is an important moment in time.
MR. GREGORY: Governor, if you’re really serious about the state being broke, you have a deal that you could take to get the contributions you need to solve the problem at hand. Why not separate that out from your views about collective bargaining?
GOV. WALKER: But, but, David, my point is repeatedly, as a former local government official, I know that collective bargaining has a cost, and when I’m cutting out more a billion dollars from aid to local governments in this next two-year budget, I need to do what no other governor’s doing across the country. They’re all cutting. All but a handful are cutting. The difference is where we want to be unique in Wisconsin is we have to give those local governments the tools. And it goes beyond the 5 and the 12 percent. And as I mentioned repeatedly, I don’t think we can take that 5 and 12 percent to the bank…
MR. GREGORY: Are you needless dividing your state?
GOV. WALKER: …because unions have shown us the last two weeks that, that they’re not going to do it. No. I think, in the end, the best way for us to move forward is for those 14 state senators–the state assembly did their job, Democrats in the assembly stood up, made their argument, made their case, did what they were elected to do. The assembly passed it. It is now at a point where we want to move forward. It’s real simple. Those 14 state senators need to come back and do what they were elected to do, come back here–they don’t have to vote for it, they don’t have to support it, but they need to come back and do their job. And when we do, I have every belief that–the first four, five weeks we’re in office, we passed an aggressive agenda that showed that Wisconsin is open for business. Many of those same senate Democrats voted with me on those measures. We can get back to that if they just come back and do the job they were elected to do.
MR. GREGORY: And if they don’t–if they don’t, Governor, how does this end?
GOV. WALKER: Well, I’m an optimist. I’m an eternal optimist. As much as I understand there’s passion and that’s–you know, in America, that’s great. We can have passion and be civil about it. But, in the end, I believe that those–at least some of those state senators will come back. If we fail to pass this bill by Tuesday, we lose $165 million worth of savings. If we continue down that path, we start seeing layoffs. I know that was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make when I was a county official was considering layoffs. I would go to almost any ends to avoid that. My hope is at least one of those 14 state senators feels the same way.
MR. GREGORY: Governor, final question here, I want to clarify something. In the course of this prank, this crank call that you got.
GOV. WALKER: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: It was suggested by someone who was a liberal blogger that you might think about planting troublemakers into the crowd. And you said quote, “We thought about that.” Is that right? You really thought about trying to bust up physically these protests?
GOV. WALKER: No, we thought, as the call continues and I’ve said repeatedly, we, we rejected that. But we have people all the time who contact us for and against this bill, and you can imagine people with all sorts of ideas and suggestions, and we look at everything that’s out there. But the bottom line is, we rejected that because we have had a civil discourse. We’ve had, you know, a week ago, 70,000 people, we had more than that yesterday, and yet we haven’t had problems here. We haven’t had disturbances. We’ve just had very passionate protesters for and against this bill, and that’s OK. That’s a very Midwestern thing. But we’re not going to allow anybody to come in from outside of this state and try and disrupt this debate. They can inform it, but we’re not going to allow them to disrupt this debate and take the focus off the real issue here. And the issue is, the people in Wisconsin, particularly those 14 state senators, need to come home and have the debate here in the state Capitol.
MR. GREGORY: All right. Governor Walker, we will leave it there. Thank you very much.
GOV. WALKER: Thank you, David.