Analysis: Gov. Walker's reforms saved millions for counties - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Analysis: Gov. Walker's reforms saved millions for counties

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WAUSAU (WAOW) -- A major recall effort is underway against Republicans.

The governor, lieutenant governor, and four state senators face possible recall elections. Much of the anger against the GOP comes from big changes they made during the last year.

The governor faced a $3.6 billion shortfall. He looked to public workers to help bridge the gap. The governor and Republican lawmakers enacted a series of sweeping changes. Most public workers lost many collective bargaining rights, and those workers now have to pay more for benefits.

Gov. Walker says these reforms have already saved millions and will continue to save money for state and local governments. But Democrats disagree.

"We've heard a lot of 'it's working' rhetoric in Wisconsin these last several months," said State Rep. Donna Seidel (D-Wausau). "But the facts don't match the rhetoric."

The question is, what's the truth?

Several think tanks and non-profits told us they're still trying to calculate a statewide number of money saved. So, without an agenda, Newsline 9 set out to find the truth in our area.

One of the governor's changes requires most public workers to pay more for retirement. We looked at the impact this has had on the county level. We went to the finance departments in Marathon, Portage, and Wood counties—the most populated in our area. And we found, those savings are real.

Michael Martin, Wood County's finance director and a public worker himself, said his county faced almost $1 million less coming from the state budget, which was supported by Gov. Walker. But Martin says the governor's reforms cushioned that blow.

"It helped us in our budget process," said Martin.

Specifically, Martin says the retirement changes saved $1.4 million in Wood County's 2012 budget, bridging the gap and then some. Martin says that likely saved jobs.

"If we wouldn't have had the retirement savings, that $1.4 million would be in the equivalent of 21 positions," said Martin.

Other counties reported similar savings from increased retirement contributions: $1.1 million in Portage County, and $2 million in Marathon County. Those totals more than made up for less state aid, and in Marathon County it saved 31 positions.

"In 2012 the budget became manageable, due to the changes," said Kristi Kordus, Marathon County finance director.

Patty Dreier, Portage County executive, summed up the changes in this way: "It's allowed us a little more flexibility to adjust to the changing in very dynamic times."

But some union workers have a different view.

"Workers are consumers, and workers were struggling even before this, and now they're going to struggle even worse," said Randy Radtke, Marathon County Labor Council president.

But it's not just increased contributions. It's also the issue of collective bargaining. Many of those rights were taken from most public workers.

"There was no reason, there was no justification, no financial necessity to then strip away so much of workers' rights," said Rep. Seidel.

The new law limits how much of a raise public workers can bargain for. Marathon County's finance director says this has saved her county $1 million.

In Portage and Wood counties, the savings are not as clear. But county officials say the changes to collective bargaining offer a potential savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars—depending on how high bargaining would have gone.

"It might not be a big change as far as setting new wage rates for the next year," said Martin.

Democrats are determined to take back the governor's office. So, what if they did? And what if his reforms were repealed? Would that be a burden?

"Yes," said Martin. "Sitting in the finance director's seat, I have to balance how much money we have with how much money we can spend. And by reducing one of the fringe benefits of employees, it did help us financially."

Marathon County's finance director agreed.

"The biggest problem would be how it would be implemented, and where the money would come from," said Kordus.

But Democrats say at least one change should be reversed.

"I think that we can restore collective bargaining in large measure with the understanding that the contributions have already been made with retirement and health insurance issues," said Rep. Seidel.

In the meantime, Gov. Walker will continue to tout his reforms as a big success. And financially, it seems some of them have been.

Online Reporter: Daniel Woodruff

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