After months of battles in his statehouse in Madison, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hit Capitol Hill today to testify on an issue that catapulted him to the national scene – ways to handle state debt.
Walker appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a hearing titled "State and Municipal Debt: Tough Choices Ahead," arguing that Wisconsin's budget cuts and hits to collective bargaining strengthened the future of the state.
"In Wisconsin, we have a different option, a progressive in the best sense of the word, a progressive option," Walker said today. "For us, we're giving state and local governments the tools they need not just to balance the budget for the next two years but for generations to come."
Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion structural deficit, and Walker aimed to address the deficit by reforming the collective bargaining system. Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., commended Walker's initiatives in Wisconsin for serving as an example for other state governments.
"Governor Walker's bold reforms seem reasonable to those of us in Washington who understand that our retirement and health care system at the federal level is not subject to collective bargaining," Issa said.
But Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont, who attended the hearing at the request of Ranking Member Eljiah Cummings, D-Md., countered Walker's view arguing that collective bargaining rights are necessary to maintain the status of the middle class.
"You can get this job done…without taking out the basic right of collective bargaining," Shumlin said.
"What is puzzling to me about the current debate about state budgets is that the focus has been not on bringing people together to solve common problems, like we have done in Vermont, but on division and blame," Shumlin said in prepared testimony. "I do not believe that those to blame for our current financial troubles are our law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other state employees whose services we take for granted."
Vermont faced a budget shortfall of $176 million for fiscal year 2012. Instead of stripping workers of collective bargaining rights, Shumlin negotiated with state employees, who accepted a two year, 3 percent pay cut, and teachers and state employees agreed to increase their pension contributions.
Shumlin credited his state's budget decisions to negotiations with public workers that were achieved "more with maple syrup than we do with vinegar."
At the start of the his testimony, Shumlin gave Walker a gift – a bottle of Vermont maple syrup – and made sure to point out Vermont ranks number one in maple syrup production while Wisconsin trails at number four.
Cummings and other democratic members of the committee echoed Shumlin's statement about misplaced blame on the middle class and questioned Walker's targeting of unions.
"I strongly oppose efforts to falsely blame middle-class American workers for these current economic problems," Cummings said. "He went much further by attempting to strip government employees of their collective bargaining rights. He demanded numerous provisions that had nothing to do with the state's budget, had no fiscal impact."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, asked Walker if certain provisions of his plan to strip collective bargaining rights save any money, a question Walker did not directly answer.
"Your proposal would require unions to hold annual votes to continue representing their own members," Kucinich said. "Can you please explain to me how much money this provision saves for your state budget?"
"That particular part doesn't save any," Walker responded.
The state of Wisconsin's Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan state budget agency, released a letter stating certain provisions of the collective bargaining proposal were of a "non-fiscal policy nature" that did not affect the budget shortfall. Earlier this year, Walker sparked a political uproar in Wisconsin when he enacted legislation with steep budget cuts and took away collective bargaining rights of public workers.
But many Wisconsin workers and Democrats felt the legislation unfairly stripped union workers of their rights. Three of these workers affected by the legislation -- a nurse, firefighter, and nursing home worker -- came to Washington to sit in the audience today directly behind Walker while wearing their work uniforms, hoping to remind him of the way his decisions hurt workers back home.
Jackie McElroy, a 42 year old nursing home worker from Milwaukee, Wis., said Walker is taking away workers' rights under the guise of fixing the state's budget. "He's trying to take away my rights to bargaining. He's cutting all our funds, money for schooling, which would affect our children's education," McElroy told ABC News. ""It's not about the budget. It's about taking our rights away."
"What Governors and House Republicans are not focused on is the single best way to fix their budget problems – by putting people back to work," the SEIU said in a press release. "Gov. Scott Walker is the wrong governor to hold up as a good example of how to run a state. Gov. Walker is running Wisconsin into the ground and dividing the state into 'two Wisconsins.'"
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., invited the Republican governor to testify on state debt based on his efforts to rein in Wisconsin's spending and deal with public employee pension programs.
"Governor Walker's bold reforms seem reasonable to those of us in Washington who understand that our retirement and healthcare system at the federal level is not subject to collective bargaining," Issa said.
Cummings asked Issa to include Gov. Shumlin of Vermont on the witness list to allow "the Committee to obtain a wider and more balanced range of views on these issues."
"As the executive of a state in the process of navigating its own projected budget shortfall, Governor Shumlin will provide valuable insight as his state and the entire country continue to recover from recent economic recession," Cummings wrote in a letter to Issa. "Governor Shumlin will also bring a perspective that is markedly different than that of the majority's witness, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker."