FOX 11 Investigates: Five years under Act 10

The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison is seen, Feb. 22, 2016. (WLUK/Andrew LaCombe)

A political firestorm was unfolding five years ago in Wisconsin. Known as Act 10, significant collective bargaining changes and higher benefit costs for public workers were Gov. Scott Walker's solution to a projected multi-billion dollar state budget deficit.

In February and March 2011, massive protests and sweeping changes at the state Capitol were making national headlines. It was one month into Gov. Scott Walker's first term.

"The state is broke," Walker said on Feb. 11, 2011. "Local governments are broke. They don't have anything to offer."

His response to a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit divided the state. Protests lasted for weeks, peaking at an estimated 100,000 people.

A big question lingers five years later.

"Everybody wants to answer this question, does Act 10 work or does it not work?" asks Michael Ford, a UW-Oshkosh public administration professor.

Ford has been studying how leaders of Wisconsin's smaller communities feel about Act 10.

Lori Cathey is the president of the teachers union in the Green Bay Area School District.

"Seems almost like it was yesterday, but then throughout the last five years there's a lot of progress that has been made since then," said Cathey. "Our actual teaching contract that we sign each year, it used to be about 80 pages. It's now two."

Covering all public workers except for police officers and firefighters, Act 10 requires pension contributions to be split equally between public employees and employers. Act 10 also requires workers to pay at least 12 percent of their health insurance premiums. The law says employees can only collectively bargain over base wages, and public unions are required to hold yearly re-certification votes.

"It's putting pressure on the pocketbooks of educators," said Cathey.

It's also changed budgets for school districts and local governments.

"I think when you look at the participation in the benefit package, especially health insurance, that's something that all employees participate in now," said Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt. "I think it's something we always talked about, but now it's something that we're working on together."

Prior to Act 10 in the 2010-11 school year, the Green Bay Area School District spent $55 million of the general fund on benefits or 29 percent of the general fund. This school year that number is projected to be $44.5 million or 18 percent of the general fund.

For the City of Green Bay in 2011, 21.6 percent of the city's spending went to benefits or $22 million. This year that level is budgeted to be three percentage points lower at $20 million.

Green Bay's mayor says he believes Act 10 has benefited city taxpayers and employees.

"I think they have a better understanding of where we're going as a city," said Schmitt. "I think if you just argue a contract across a table from each other, that's not a relationship."

FOX 11 asked Schmitt if he has seen changes with employee morale.

"In terms of morale, something that Act 10 did allow is the promotion process," he replied. "Instead of just based on seniority, it can be the best qualified person, the person who wants to advance."

The leader of AFSCME Council 32, the state's largest public-employee union, has another view. Executive Director Rick Badger says Act 10 has caused experienced employees to quit across Wisconsin.

"Places like Department of Corrections, it's clear they can't fill the vacancies, and there are real problems in terms of morale," said Badger. "I think there are varying degrees of that throughout the public sector in both the state and local government levels."

Ford is surveying leaders in communities with populations up to 10,000 people.

"As long as the current generation of public leaders are still viewing this through the partisan lens, we're really not going to have an accurate idea of its long term legacy," he said.

Ford says he's trying to get beyond the financial impact of Act 10.

"Long-term, the impact of Act 10 is going to be judged on how it impacts public performance, how it impacts employee morale and how it impacts that relationship between public employee and management," he said.

Before Act 10, AFSCME had three separate councils across the state with about 60,000 members combined. Those three councils have since combined into one with likely just about 20,000 members.

"We are down significantly, and there are reports out there, and there's no lie that Act 10 has affected union membership statewide," said Badger. "Not just in our union, but in all kinds of union around the state."

In Green Bay, more teachers participate in the union compared to the rest of the state where numbers are down more than 50 percent.

"We're still at over 70 percent membership," said Cathey. "We work collaboratively with the district."

Jean Marsch leads the human resources department for Green Bay schools.

"We've established a benefit advisory committee and there are representatives of all our unions on that," said Marsch.

But there are changes.

"Right now it has changed the way we interact with our employees," she said. "Obviously we bargain base wages, but we've set up a way that we have open and respectful communication with our employee groups, and it has been working very well."

The Madison-based MacIver Institute, which supports conservative causes, has analyzed the savings from Act 10. MacIver says over the past five years Act 10 has taken $5.24 billion out of budgets for local governments and schools. Those costs have been taken on by the employees.

Marsch points out the savings from Act 10 also came at the same time as a $792 million cut in two-year state aid for K-12 schools. So she says districts didn't end up with a windfall of extra money.

FOX 11 asked Marsch if she thinks Green Bay students have seen an impact from Act 10.

"I would hope that they have not seen an impact from Act 10," she replied. "I believe that the teachers returned to the classroom after Act 10 and provided the same level of quality instruction that they always have. I think the effect was personal for them."

Cathey has another view.

"I personally would rather pay more on my taxes to make sure that my three boys have everything that they need," she said. "They have a qualified educator, they have up to date textbooks."

A year after signing Act 10, Gov. Walker became the first governor to survive a recall election. The law withstood multiple court challenges. The recall and Act 10 reforms were major talking points during Walker's short-lived presidential run last year.

In Wisconsin, the divisiveness remains. And Republicans face the question: will police officers and firefighters face the changes next?

"I think that may be a good thing," said Schmitt. "With all that said, we need our employees really bad, and I think they want to work for an organization that respects and promotes them."

The governor says with lawmakers planning to end their work for the year this month, he doesn't see the change happening anytime soon.

"Who knows about the future," said Walker. "From our standpoint, the future budgets, what we're going to be looking at as a priority are things related to job creation."

Walker has said the state is looking at changes to health insurance programs for state employees. He says any savings there for the state would be put toward public schools.

Wednesday night on FOX 11 News at Ten, FOX 11 Investigates will take a closer look at where the state's new right-to-work law stands. Walker signed that law last March. It prohibits private-sector unions from forcing members to pay union dues to get or keep a job.

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