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Rumors of dire consequences for state employees flew the morning after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced deep cuts in the 2011-’13 state budget.
Employee angst centered on fears of new financial sacrifices -- beyond Walker’s previously announced proposal that state workers pay 50 percent of their pension costs and a bigger chunk of health insurance premiums.
Department of Corrections employees in the Racine area openly fretted in an e-mail they forwarded to co-workers, families, friends and fellow union members.
Citing specific pages in the budget repair bill, the email said a major surprise awaited employees after 2012.
"Page 58 Sec 62.623 -- In 2013 the state will NO LONGER PAY ANYTHING toward our medical and pension fund. The state employees will be required to pay the entire cost, roughly $1500.00 a month for each employee."
That would mean about $18,000 a year.
The e-mail reflects concerns on the tips of employees' tongues for weeks, said Matt Stohr, spokesman for the state Department of Employee Trust Funds.
"Every day it seems there is another rumor to react to," Stohr said.
The e-mail was forwarded to us by one of its recipients, Corrections employee Catherine Weishan.
Weishan said it alarmed her because taking on the full cost of health insurance and pensions would mean payments from employees of well into five figures each.
"If this is true, and especially if the $1,500 estimate is true, then I cannot afford to keep my job with the state," Weishan said. "When I came to work for the DOC I took an hourly pay cut and, like many, expected to do so in return for benefits. If my benefits become unaffordable, in particular the health insurance, I need to find a job with insurance that I can afford."
Given the widespread rumors, we thought it was worth getting to the bottom of this one.
After all, the stakes are high -- health premiums alone average $14,700 per state employee. In 2010, the state picked up $997 million of the cost while employees kicked in $60 million, Stohr said.
The email Weishan received had some odd cut-and-paste qualities.
So, is there any truth to its claim that state workers, after 2012, will have to pay the entire cost of health premiums and pensions?
In a word, no -- at least based on what we know now.
We could find no evidence of such a plan in our review of the two bills.
Under Walker’s plan, the state could unilaterally set the worker contribution at any amount. And if costs rise, that would mean more out of pocket from employees. But there’s no indication in the bills of a plan to go to 100 percent employee share -- nearly eight times the contribution Walker is seeking in his plan.
Two state officials, Stohr from the Employee Trust Funds department and Gov. Scott Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie, said there was absolutely nothing to the claim.
"No truth to it," Werwie said of the e-mail claim.
Said Stohr: "I haven’t seen anything like that in the budget."
The claim appears to be a misreading of the budget-repair bill.
The section on page 58 of the budget-repair bill -- the part cited in the email -- actually refers to City of Milwaukee employees, not state employees.
Walker’s repair bill makes this pension change for state employees, city and county of Milwaukee workers and other local employees covered by the state pension system.
The page in question outlines how City of Milwaukee employees will have to pay half of the pension contribution required annually. In Milwaukee that translates to 5.5 percent of salary for general city employees and 7 percent for elected officials.
We confirmed those points with Dennis Yaccarino, a manager in the City of Milwaukee budget office.
Where does this leave us?
A chain e-mail makes various claims about how state employees will suffer under Walker’s two budget bills. Those claims go way beyond the governor’s actual plan to get state employees to share more of the cost of pension and health insurance.
We could find no evidence to back the e-mail’s claim that employees will pay 100 percent of their benefits as of 2013. State officials flatly deny it as well.
That rate the claim False.
Corrections Department, e-mail exchange among employees, March 2, 2011
E-mail interview with Cullen Werwie, Gov. Scott Walker’s press secretary, March 4, 2011
Senate Bill 11, budget repair bill (page 125)
Senate Bill 11, budget repair bill (page 58)
E-mail interviews with Catherine Weishan, Corrections employee, March 3, 2011
Interview with Matthew Stohr, director, Office of Communications and Legislation, Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, March 3, 2011
Interview with Dennis Yaccarino, budget and policy analyst manager, City of Milwaukee, March 3, 2011
Madison Capital Times, Walker eyes raid on employee insurance fund, Feb. 25, 2011
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