Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker said Thursday he wants state employees to foot the bill for their portion of their pension benefits and he would lead by example.
Walker said he would pay for his portion if elected governor and he would propose in his first budget that all state employees and other elected officials do the same. Walker's share as governor would be about $5,600 a year.
Any proposal affecting unionized state workers would need to be negotiated as part of labor contracts.
Marty Beil, executive director of a union representing 22,000 state workers that has endorsed Barrett, said pension contributions must be negotiated during collective bargaining and can't be done "by the fiat of governors."
"State employees for many years have taken less money in wages so they could have solid pensions that could be there when they retired. Now you've got characters like Walker saying 'We've got to violate that trust,'" Beil said. "It would be very difficult for us to easily accept this at the bargaining table."
Walker said he would look at any legal option he had to force unionized workers to pay for their benefits even if they refused to negotiate.
Beil, who heads the Wisconsin State Employees Union, also denounced Walker's promise to pay his full pension contributions as governor as "another fad." He said Walker could have done so as a state lawmaker if "he feels so deeply about that."
This isn't the first time the idea has been proposed.
Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed a part of the state budget proposed by Republican lawmakers in 2005 that would have required 31,000 nonunionized state workers to pay a portion of their pension costs.
Requiring all state workers to pay their contribution would save the state about $180 million a year, Walker said in a release.
"The only way we're going to get spending under control is to fundamentally change the way we govern, enacting long-term solutions that reduce the cost of government," he said.
The next governor will inherit a two-year state budget that is projected to be more than $2 billion short. All three major candidates have been slowly releasing some of their ideas for how they will address that shortfall.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the only major Democrat in the race, released a plan earlier this month that he said would cut more than $1 billion a year from the budget. Among his proposals: doing away with the secretary of state and treasurer's offices as well as pension sweeteners for politicians and top officials. His pension proposal does not go as far as Walker's.
"The people of Wisconsin want real solutions and real ideas, not gimmicks," Barrett said in a statement.
Republican Mark Neumann, a former congressman from the Milwaukee area, said he would limit annual spending increases at state agencies to no more than 1 percent less than the rate of inflation, but he hasn't said which ones would be exempt from the reductions or what exactly would be cut.
Neumann said he didn't oppose Walker's idea, but he said Walker should offer a more comprehensive budget balancing plan.
Walker promised to release more details about how he would balance the budget over the coming weeks.
"We're not going to scramble or run out just to match Tom Barrett just because he put something out," Walker said. "We're going to have a thoughtful discussion between now and the fall election on something we know we can deliver on."
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed to this story.