Budget committee rescues labor review panel

AP

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Legislature's finance committee chose Thursday to preserve the state commission that decides workplace disputes, rejecting Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate it and have his administration issue labor rulings instead.

The Republican-controlled committee's co-chairs introduced a motion to save the Labor and Industry Review Commission but delete 7.8 vacant commission positions and request state Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack to review the commission's decisions and report back to the committee by next July. The committee approved the motion on a 12-4 vote.

Sen. Alberta Darling, one of the co-chairs, said she's heard concerns that the LIRC hasn't based its decisions on state law. The survey will shed more light on how the LIRC reaches its conclusions, she said.

"Is LIRC a necessary function to preserve equal rights and safety or is it an added layer of bureaucracy?" Darling said.

The panel's four Democrats thanked the Republicans for rescuing the commission but said they couldn't support the move because it eliminates 7.8 positions that the commission might need if the economy sputters and people start losing their jobs.

"The first thing I want to say is thank you for maintaining LIRC," Sen. Lena Taylor said. "(But) it's a setup if you take away the positions. People need to be able to do the work connected to this. You're protecting people from discrimination."

LIRC formed in 1911 as the State Industrial Commission. It reviews decisions by administrative law judges' rulings in disputes over unemployment benefits, worker's compensation and workplace equal rights. Parties can appeal the LIRC's decisions to circuit and state appellate courts.

Walker's 2017-19 budget called for eliminating the commission and its 26.5 positions. The commission's duties would shift to the state Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Administration, both cabinet agencies.

Walker justified the move by saying the number of appeals LIRC has heard has decreased by nearly 60 percent over the last five years. DWD Secretary Ray Allen said eliminating the commission would speed up appeals. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau summary of the governor's position made no mention of Walker being concerned about whether LIRC was overstepping its legal authority.

The proposal generated a host of questions, including whether Walker's pro-industry administration could decide cases fairly.

Another key concern was whether the legal precedence LIRC has established in its decisions over the years would stand up after the commission disappeared, creating uncertainty in the labor law world and driving parties to pursue more cases to the circuit and appellate court levels, leading to more expensive disputes.

Only 88 commission cases went to court in 2016. About 1,000 additional cases could end up in court annually if the commission disappears, the LFB estimated.

In other budget actions Thursday, the committee:

—Rejected Walker's proposal to freeze Wisconsin College Technical College System tuition at 2016-17 levels. The committee did vote to boost grants for technical college students by $2.5 million annually. Committee Republicans said freezing tuition would force more tax dollars to the system to offset the lost revenue and students need to invest in their education.

—Approved Walker's plan to eliminate the Educational Approval Board, which regulates for-profit colleges, and shift its functions to the Department of Safety and Professional Services. The committee voted to attach the board to DSPS, where it would continue to operate as its own entity until July 2018. Then it would disappear.

—Allocated $32 million from Wisconsin's share of a federal settlement with Volkswagen AG to set up a fund for cities looking to improve their bus systems The committee also devoted another $10 million from the settlement to replace state vehicles. Walker's budget called for spending $16 million state vehicles and $26 million on Milwaukee County buses.

—Limited eligibility for the state homestead tax credit to people at least 62 years old, people with spouses at least 62 years old, the disabled and people who earn income. The LFB estimated the move would make 11,300 people ineligible for the credit.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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