SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told an audience of Illinois businesspeople Tuesday that reining in the power of public-sector unions, as Walker has done in Wisconsin, could be key to fixing their state's budget.
"Wisconsin couldn't wait. We had to take action," Walker told several hundred business leaders at a Springfield hotel, referring to his controversial rollback of public-sector collective bargaining rights in tackling Wisconsin's budget deficit.
"We thought more about the next generation than we did about the next election," he said, to thunderous applause from the business gathering.
Outside, however, the crowd was even louder, with an estimated 3,000 workers protesting Walker's speech. Some carried signs that said: "Go Home, Gov. Walker."
Labor leaders at the rally insisted Wisconsin shouldn't be an inspiration to Illinois, but a cautionary tale.
"Governor Walker, we believe in Illinois hospitality ... (but) we don't need your union-busting, education-cutting, environment-desecrating policies here in Illinois," said William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois.
Speaking to a gathering of The Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, Walker recounted his fiscal strategy of wresting power from the state's unions and other actions that have made him the darling of conservatives nationally.
But Walker, a first-term Republican, clearly was thinking about his coming recall election, which he referred to several times in the speech. He said he expects to keep his seat, and he suggested that job growth in Wisconsin will explode once businesses are certain his policies will remain in place.
Labor supporters nationally have accused Walker of union-busting that went beyond any fiscal necessity. Walker insisted in the speech that "collective bargaining stood in the way" of fixing Wisconsin's fiscal situation, and that the bargaining system had to be reformed.
As proof that the reforms were ultimately better for even the workers, he pointed out that, unlike Illinois under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, Wisconsin isn't talking about large layoffs of public sector workers to balance the budget.
Walker blamed his recall challenge on "a handful of big union bosses ... who think I'm standing in the way of their money and power."
Illinois' fiscal crisis is driven partly by a public pension debt that was caused by years of underpaying into the system from the Legislature. Illinois has recently changed its rules to make the pension system less generous to new hires, but Quinn has resisted calls to retroactively change the pension rights of previously hired workers.
Brianna Ehley of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.