Democratic Governors Unclear on Whether Voters Should Have Say in Public Employee Pay Hikes

By Fred Lucas | February 28, 2011 | 4:01 AM EST

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, center, flanked by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, and other governors, speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, after Democratic governors met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Washington ( – Democratic governors were critical of how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is handling the showdown with the public employees union in his state, but were ambiguous about whether they could support Walker’s proposal to allow voters to approve or disapprove by referendum any pay raise for public employees – including teachers – that exceeds the rate of inflation.

“I don’t want to criticize other governors,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told “I’ve got my hands full in Colorado issues and our budget. We are trying to make sure we have everybody at the table when we’re looking at pensions or wages that we really have a rich and useful conversation about it.

Hickenlooper said a referendum should not be used too often.

“I don’t mind referendums. What, are you going to do a referendum on everything?” he continued. “My goal is if you get the right people making the conversation, making the discussion, then ultimately – voters don’t have to have a referendum on every little thing, I don’t think.

“It depends on the state and how important it is for different issues. Ultimately we need to get all sides to the table and work out compromises, legitimate compromises,” Hickenlooper said.

The Democratic Governors Association met in Washington on Friday, and a group of those Democratic governors met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House. They said the focus on the discussion was improving the economy. They also told reporters after the meeting that the situation in Wisconsin was not a major topic of discussion during the meeting.

The Democrats’ meeting is followed by the meeting of the bipartisan National Governors Association. The gatherings are happening in the midst of a showdown between Gov. Walker, a Republican, and Wisconsin public employee unions. The fight has national significance as many states are struggling to control spending on public pay and pensions.

Walker supports legislation that would maintain the state employees’ ability to negotiate only over pay but would strip them collective bargaining rights on other benefits. Any pay increases negotiated couldn’t exceed the rate of inflation unless approved by the voters of the state.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Walker’s actions in taking on the public sector unions is a distraction from improving the state’s economy.

“Anything they can do to get back to the main priority that I think every governor should be focused on which is job creation, saving jobs, creating jobs and rebuilding our economy,” O’Malley said.

“I think it’s so unfortunate that with all of the challenges we’ve gone through in this recession that any state would be distracted from job creation and try to settle old political scores or sharpen their ideological ax to go after unions,” O’Malley told

“I just don’t think it’s helpful to creating jobs. Whatever Wisconsin or these other states can do to get back into the game of creating jobs instead of fighting, or belittling their public employees, I think is a positive step,” he said.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy said that Walker clearly had a union-busting agenda.

“First of all, he’s got to do what he thinks is right for his state, and clearly I have some pretty big disagreements with him,” Malloy told “He’s trying to bust a union. That’s what he is. He’s a union buster, and that’s what he’s trying to do, and he is now desperate to find language where his position doesn’t sound quite as absurd.

“That’s what he’s doing. You’re asking questions about his renovating his initial take on all of this,” Malloy continued. “For instance, he wants union members to have to vote to be a union member every year, but he doesn’t think the governor should be elected every year.”

When followed up with Malloy on whether he would support a referendum for pay increases, he answered, “Each state has a different constitution, so they’ll make their own decisions. We don’t have that in our constitution.”