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Your guide to the Wisconsin budget debate

Thousands of people gather outside the Capitol in Madison to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill Thousands of people gather outside the Capitol in Madison to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill

Thousands of people gather outside the Capitol in Madison to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill

By Dave Umhoefer March 3, 2011

The Wisconsin budget controversy has generated sharp rhetorical clashes over ideology, budget priorities and tactics -- and the largest sustained protests in Madison since the Vietnam War,

The main event: An argument over collective bargaining rights and compensation for state and local government employees that has spurred national interest.

Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, argue that sharply limiting union power is essential to reducing massive budget deficits at the state and local level. Democrats view the real intent as union-busting and say the GOP move unfairly punishes workers for recession-related woes.

Here’s a review of some key fact-checks so far by PolitiFact Wisconsin, with help in some cases from PolitiFact National.

Labor pains

A state AFL-CIO ad charged that Walker's budget-repair bill would eliminate unions and "take away any say" they have in the workplace. We found the ad's central claim Half True.

State Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican, earned a False for asserting that unions in the private sector bargain "for the most part" only on wages.

We gave a Pants on Fire to Walker for telling talk-radio host Charlie Sykes that under his bill "collective bargaining is fully intact," but a True for his assertion on NBC's Meet the Press that "Most federal employees do not have collective bargaining for benefits, nor for pay."

The size of the problem

We tested Walker’s mantra that Wisconsin state government is "broke" and found it False. The state is facing a significant budget challenge, but has many options for solving it.

Democrats, we found, have gone too far in the opposite direction, contending that Walker manufactured the budget crisis.

We found False the claim from Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan that an estimated $3.6 billion two-year budget shortfall was "bogus." One of the 14 state Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin to slow a vote on Walker's short-term budget repair bill, Jon Erpenbach said "there's no rush on this thing" because the fiscal year does not end until June 20, 2011. We rated that Barely True

Meanwhile, there was the claim there is no short-term budget deficit at all. False.

The pay story

Both sides produced a torrent of numbers trying to portray public employee benefits as excessive or reasonable.

Walker was True in asserting that most state employees could pay twice as much toward their health care premiums and it would still be half the national average. The conservative Club for Growth overreached in claiming that when it comes to taking cuts in tough budget times, Wisconsin "state workers haven't had to sacrifice." We rated that Barely True.

Fox Business News' Eric Bolling claimed Wisconsin teachers make nearly twice the average US worker in the private sector. Another Barely True.

The Governor

Walker’s defense had an all-or-nothing quality about it, at least based on statements we tested on the Truth-O-Meter.

We found False the governor’s statement that he campaigned on collective bargaining limits during the fall election. And he wrongly claimed that an alternative to state employee health and pension changes is bumping 200,000 children out of Medicaid. That rated False as well.

But Walker's rhetorical aim was True when he said that Democratic senators pushed through a repair bill without hearings in 2009, when they controlled Madison.


We have handed out the most extreme rating on the Truth-O-Meter -- Pants on Fire, for ridiculously inaccurate claims -- on several occasions.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, compared Madison to Cairo, and called protests over collective bargaining changes "riots." State Senator Lena Taylor, a Democrat,  said that, like Hitler, Gov. Scott Walker is abolishing unions.

Finally, a liberal group known as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that Walker "has threatened to call out the National Guard if workers protest against" changes to bargaining laws.

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Your guide to the Wisconsin budget debate