By Jeff Mayers
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - A judge on Friday temporarily blocked Wisconsin's controversial new law stripping public employee unions of key collective bargaining rights, though the ruling does not strike down the law itself.
Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi granted a temporary restraining order, which stops the official publication of the bill by Wisconsin's secretary of state, while she considers a complaint filed against several Republican lawmakers who orchestrated the measure's passage last week.
The complaint, filed by the Dane County district attorney, alleges the Republican legislators violated the state's open meetings laws in the run-up to last week's vote.
During the meeting in question, which occurred last Wednesday, the Republicans who supported the anti-union measure separated it from a broader budget bill.
That maneuver allowed the Republican-controlled Senate, which had been stymied for weeks after its 14 Democratic members fled to Illinois to delay action on the measure, to quickly pass it without a quorum.
Ismael Ozanne, the district attorney for Dane County, said that the conference committee meeting took place with less than two hours notice, in violation of state law and the legislature's own rules. He has asked Sumi to declare "void" the anti-union measure the two houses subsequently passed, and that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law.
Sumi's Friday ruling does not overturn the law itself, which was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the state's newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker.
But until the law is published, it will not go into effect. That gives public workers in the state more time to bargain new and better contracts with municipal authorities. Such deals would allow them to avoid the law's strict measures for the length of whatever contract they can get signed.
Sumi still has to rule on the merits of the underlying complaint, which asks that the law be voided because of the open meeting violations.
But even if she overturns the law, Republicans who support the law, and hold majorities in both houses of the state legislature, could just go back and pass it again while making sure they comply with the open meeting law.
"This legislation is still working through the legal process," Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman, said in reaction to the setback. "We are confident the provisions of the budget repair bill will become law in the near future."
The law has polarized opinion in the state, among the first in the country to give public employees the right to unionize, and triggered the biggest protests since the Vietnam War.
Wisconsin has become the focal point of what has quickly become a nationwide debate over unions and the public purse.
Other states with Republican governors, including Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, have mulled similar measures curbing collective bargaining by teachers, highway workers, nurses and other public servants.
Walker has said the law is aimed at protecting taxpayers and employment, arguing it will improve the business climate and help the state's private sector create 250,000 jobs.
He said the state needs the restrictions on bargaining to deal with funding shortfalls as the state contends with a $3.6 billion deficit in the upcoming two-year budget.
Critics questioned the claims about the bill saving money, saying they were a smokescreen for an effort to break the unions.
Ozanne's complaint is one of two filed by officials in Dane County, which is the county that includes Madison.
The other, filed by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and County Board Chair Scott McDonell, alleges that the anti-union measure contained fiscal items that required a quorum in the Senate. It also asks Sumi to issue a temporary injunction while the merits of the complaint are weighed.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune)