MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Opponents of a bill stripping Wisconsin public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights rallied at the state Capitol on Saturday, the day after a state agency published the measure despite an order barring such a move.
Republican supporters of the measure said the action by the state's Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), which published the bill electronically on Friday, was legal and meant the controversial anti-union measure was now in effect.
But Democrats insisted the temporary restraining order (TRO) on publication issued last week by a judge remained in effect and rendered Friday's publication by the LRB moot.
The move injected fresh controversy into the debate here over the measure, which would overturn a 52-year-old state policy encouraging public-sector unionism and sparked massive demonstrations in Madison, the state capital, for weeks.
Lester Pines, an attorney who represents unionized teachers in Madison, told the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper the LRB's action, which appeared to contravene both the court order and specific written instructions from the Secretary of State, would "unleash a tsunami of litigation."
Peter Barca, the top Democrat in the state Assembly, said he had consulted with attorneys at the Wisconsin Legislative Council (WLC), a separate nonpartisan legislative agency, and had been assured the measure would not be deemed legally published without further action by Wisconsin's secretary of state.
Legal publication of the legislation is required for it to go into effect.
Barca distributed a memo to the media from Scott Grosz, a staff attorney with the WLC, supporting that interpretation.
"While certain statutory obligations regarding publication of Act 10 have been satisfied by the LRB," Grosz wrote in the memo, "the statutory obligation that relates to the effective date of Act 10 has not yet been satisfied by the Secretary of State, and at this time the Secretary's actions remain subject to the temporary restraining order issued in Dane County Circuit Court."
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who filed the complaint that generated the restraining order, agreed. He said the judge issuing the order had been clear it was designed to "preserve the status quo" -- not to enjoin a particular individual.
But Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, disagreed.
In an interview with Reuters on Saturday, Fitzgerald reiterated his view that the LRB's action did not violate the TRO because the bureau was not specifically mentioned in the order.
"The LRB clearly had authority to do what it did yesterday -- not only the authority but the obligation," Fitzgerald said. "And it's my understanding that, as of this morning, it's the law."
Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin education Association Council, a teachers union whose members are among those affected by the law, called the Friday move "another sign that the governor and legislature are in a desperate power grab to take away the voice of teachers, support staff, nurses, home health care workers and other public employees."
The court appeal was based on an argument that the state's open meeting laws had been violated when the bill was passed. rather than a challenge to its contents, meaning even if the appeal were ultimately upheld the Republican-dominated state legislature is likely to simply pass the measure again.
But so long as it is not in legal effect, public employee unions can try to use existing bargaining powers to negotiate better contracts before their rights are curbed.
Republican Governor Scott Walker had strongly pushed the legislation, saying it was part of a package needed to combat the state's budget deficit.
Union and Democratic critics said that argument was a smoke screen for busting state workers' unions. The issue attracted hundreds of thousands to demonstrations against the measure.
Democratic state senators fled the state in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to block a vote on the measure, and the battle over the bill has become a symbol for other states where unions are trying to preserve bargaining powers as Republican-led legislatures seek to curb them.
(Writing by James Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)