GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to the spreading labor unrest in state capitals across the nation. Indiana lawmakers today followed the example set by their counterparts in Wisconsin, leaving the state to avoid action on a bill that would curb the influence of public employee labor unions.
Similar conflicts are brewing in Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee and Ohio. Unions say many of them are fighting for their existence. But some governors say tough changes are overdue.
New Jersey Republican Chris Christie presented his annual budget today.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-N.J.): Today, they are standing up and saying, just as I did last March, the problems we have hidden for decades are evident for all to see. The day of reckoning has arrived.
In California, a new Democratic governor has proposed to cut the number and pay of all state employees. And in Wisconsin and Ohio, they have decided there can no longer be two classes of citizens, one that receives rich health and pension benefits, and all the rest, who are left to pay for them.
GWEN IFILL: For more, we hear from three reporters covering conflict in key states: Michael Aron, senior political correspondent for NJN News Public Television in Trenton; Eric Bradner, Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for the Evansville Courier & Press; and Karen Kasler, capital bureau chief for Ohio Public Radio and Television.
Eric Bradner, let's start with you in Indiana, because that's where the latest walkout occurred of Democrats who decided they didn't want to vote on this kind of a union bill. How much of this in Indiana is about fight to break the unions, as the unions charge, and how much of it is a fight to balance the budget, as the Republicans charge?
ERIC BRADNER, Evansville Courier & Press: Well, this one is not about the budget. The budget in Indiana is fairly balanced. This is all about conflict between unions and their Democratic allies, and business and their Republican allies.
What's unique about Indian is that the governor is not involved in this situation. It's all legislative. And it's strictly Democratic and Republican, not really fiscal.
GWEN IFILL: Do we know where the Democrats are tonight?
ERIC BRADNER: We don't. We know some of them are in Illinois. A few might be in Kentucky. We are trying to get ahold of them, but they're gone. They have fled the state. And reporters are still trying to figure out exactly where they are.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that's what happened in Wisconsin as well. We will see if that spreads as well.
Karen Kasler, there are thousands of people on the -- on the front steps of the state capitol, including the former governor, Ted Strickland, the Democrat, who was ousted by the current governor, John Kasich.
How much of that fight, that dispute that we saw playing out there in Columbus is about the budget, and how much of it is about union sovereignty?
KAREN KASLER, Ohio Public Radio: Well, once again, as it is in other states, we have the Republicans telling us it's about the budget.
We have an $8 billion budget deficit ahead for our two-year spending plan. And so, Republicans are saying this is the kind of thing that will help communities and the state keep tabs on their costs, help keep those costs down.
But of course, you have got Democrats on the other side who are saying, that's not what this is about. This is about busting labor unions and taking the opportunity to grab the power while we can. At least, that's the -- how they see the Republican viewpoint.
Ohio became a very red state in November. It was a tsunami of GOP voting power that came through here. And so, you have a strong Republican governor, a strong Republican legislature. And now they are doing this, showing -- for example, in Ohio, the collective bargaining bill is Senate Bill 5. Five indicates the priority of this bill.
That's the number five, a single digit. This is one of the first bills that was introduced. And that indicates how important this is. Gov. John Kasich, when he came into office, said that this was going to be a top priority for him.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Aron, in New Jersey, we just saw Chris Christie, your governor, basically say, I started this revolution last year, and now people are coming along.
How much of this is being driven by strong, new Republican governors like Chris Christie?
MICHAEL ARON, New Jersey News: Well, I think they're driving it, but I think Chris Christie can take some credit for starting it. He's been fighting with mainly the teachers union for well over a year now.
What they're fighting about are the pension liability and the health benefits, the retiree health benefits liabilities that the state faces, $54 billion in the pension area, in the neighborhood of $90 billion in the retiree health benefit area.
Those are staggering numbers. The governor doesn't seem to be wanting to take away collective bargaining rights from the unions, but he does want strong concessions from them, and not just from teachers, but from local government employees, state workers, police, fire, you name it.
GWEN IFILL: That is an interesting distinction. He is looking for concessions, which assumes that both Republicans and Democrats are in town to talk about concessions, but he's not trying to take back the collective bargaining rights entirely, as is happening in Wisconsin, for instance.
MICHAEL ARON: No, he wants reforms. And he wants the legislature to join him in reforms. And our legislators are all within the state of New Jersey tonight. He wants to raise the retirement age for public employees from 62 to 66, do away with cost-of-living adjustments, roll back a 9 percent pension increase that they got in 2001 that he says was never properly funded.
In the health area, he -- right now, most public employees pay 1.5 percent of salary for their health benefits. He wants them to pay 30 percent of the cost of the coverage. And today, in his budget message, he said that the average payment right now is 8 percent of the policy by public employees.
GWEN IFILL: Eric Bradner, in Indiana, what does the governor, Mitch Daniels, have to say about this little standoff which has cropped up in the last 24 hours?
ERIC BRADNER: Well, it's interesting, because he actually has not been on Republicans' side.
He said two months ago that he would prefer that this issue just rest for this session. He thought Republicans didn't campaign on it and needed to wait until they had before they addressed it. And so, today, he said, again, that would be his preference.
And so there is conflict between the governor and some Republicans in the Indiana House who are more interested in pursuing this than he is.
GWEN IFILL: Does that mean we can't expect to see Gov. Daniels send state troopers across the line to try find and root out those Democrats, those fleeing Democrats?
ERIC BRADNER: That's exactly what it means. He said this afternoon that he will not do that. He is not interested in diverting troopers from their day jobs, he said.
GWEN IFILL: Karen Kasler, is there any room for compromise, or do you see any compromise building there in Ohio?
KAREN KASLER: Well, Gov. Kasich has suggested that this whole issue of collective bargaining may be an area where there might be a little bit of room to move.
He has said he has got his own bill. This bill that is in proposal right now is not his bill. So, there's certainly a thought that maybe that would be an area. You do have some Republican legislators who are also saying that the public safety forces issue and how it would affect them has -- they have a problem with that.
So, I think there is some room to move. And I'm certain we will see some deals moving along here as this whole process goes through. Gov. Kasich has got to put his budget into place on March 15. And he has said that if he doesn't like the bill, he might include some things in his budget. So, we will have to wait and see.
GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you this too, Karen, and everyone else right after that, which is we talked about what the governors might want to be doing here, but to what degree are labor unions seeing this as an opportunity to make their case, even if they are not necessarily labor unions that represent public employees?
KAREN KASLER: Oh, I think labor unions are using this as an opportunity, definitely.
Gov. Ted Strickland lost by just two percentage points. And a lot of people pointed to labor unions in Ohio as a reason why, saying that they were not as motivated and mobilized as they could have been. Certainly, you're seeing a lot of labor unions get involved today. The protests were bigger today than they have been in the last week or so.
And a lot of private companies, steelworkers and other companies that employ private labor unions, they were there as well. And so I think that you are seeing an opportunity by labor unions to take this as a way to kind of seize power and maybe look forward into what might be done in the next year or two.
And there's the possibility, too, that this could also go to the ballot. If indeed it does pass in the legislature, then Ohio voters might actually have to look at this in the next year or two.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that raises an interesting question, Eric Bradner there in Indiana. How much of this is really about the unions seizing an opportunity? And, if that's the case, how is the public responding to this?
ERIC BRADNER: Well, it's about the unions protecting what they have now. They feel like they're under assault from Republicans.
And they have certainly been emboldened by what's been happening in Wisconsin. But whether the public is with them remains to be seen. After all, the public did throw out a Democratic majority in the Indiana House and replaced it with a sizable Republican majority.
And they've done what they said they would do during the campaign. So, there's no doubt unions see this as an opportunity. But whether the public is with them is tough to tell right now.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Aron, is there -- is it possible to tell in New Jersey whether the public is on board with all of this?
MICHAEL ARON: Well, public opinion polls tend to favor the governor maybe 60 to 40 in his effort to extract concessions from public employees.
But I think the public employees' unions have been reeling from the rhetoric, if not in fact the actions, of this governor for about a year. You played a clip at the beginning of this segment in which he said there are two classes of people.
He made that statement first in a speech in Atlantic City to municipal officials about nine months ago. There are two kinds of people, two classes of people in New Jersey, he said, public employees and everybody else who pays for them.
It was a very provocative statement at the time. I had not heard him repeat it at all until today, when he said it in his budget address. And so I guess he stands by it.
I should point out, however, that again, as somebody just said, maybe emboldened by Wisconsin, the state AFL-CIO here has called a rally, organized a rally for this Friday on the statehouse steps. One imagines it's going to be quite a scene. I don't know if it will rival Wisconsin, but it's probably going to be big. And this might be an opportunity for public employees to grab the megaphone for a day, at least.
GWEN IFILL: Yes. So, I think you're all right that there are going to be a lot more megaphones on statehouse steps in the next several days. And we will be watching for all of it.
Thank you all very much.