A majority of Wisconsin residents are skeptical of Gov. Scott Walker's explanation for trying to strip collective bargaining rights from most public employees, according to poll results released Friday.

The Wisconsin Public Radio poll also found general support for public employees to have the right to collectively bargain for benefits. Respondents also disapproved of how state senators of both parties handled the Walker measure, as Democrats left the state to delay action on the measure and Republicans used an end-around to vote on it anyway.

Walker has said the law, which is currently tied up in a court challenge, will help balance a $3.6 billion hole in the state budget and give local governments the flexibility they need to absorb deep cuts in state aid.

However, 57 percent of poll respondents said they believed it was more about decreasing the power of public-sector unions. Another 31 percent said it was indeed about decreasing the budget deficit, while 12 percent said they weren't sure.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the efforts would save the state government $300 million over the biennium and save local governments $1.44 billion.

"Overall, the governor's policies and budget are focused on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs by the end of his first term," Werwie said in an email, "and on making the hard decisions today, so they aren't left for the next generation."

The law would require almost all public sector workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut. It would also eliminate their ability to collectively bargain almost all their work conditions, from hours to vacations. They would still be allowed to negotiate on wages.

The telephone poll of 400 respondents was commissioned by WPR and performed by St. Norbert College. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points and was conducted between April 5 and Monday.

A majority, 61 percent to 35 percent, said public employees should have the right to collectively bargain for wages. A smaller majority, 54 percent to 42 percent, said the same right should also apply for health and retirement benefits.

The collective-bargaining measure turned out to be among the most divisive in state history, drawing tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol for weeks of angry demonstrations. Many of the demonstrators were public employees, including teachers.

The poll found strong support for that group, with 70 percent saying they had a favorable opinion of public school teachers in Wisconsin and 24 percent with an unfavorable view. Reactions toward Wisconsin public employees in general were nearly identical.

State lawmakers didn't fare nearly as well.

Fourteen state Senate Democrats stalled action on the measure for three weeks by leaving the state, denying the Senate the quorum it needed to vote on bills involving fiscal issues. Republicans eventually stripped the collective-bargaining part from the bill and voted on it as a non-fiscal issue, a vote that only required a simple majority.

Neither tactic sat well with respondents.

The poll found that 59 percent of respondents disapproved of what the Democrats did compared to 33 percent who approved, while 49 percent disapproved of Republicans' efforts and 39 percent approved.

The actions leave lawmakers on both sides with nearly equal approval ratings.

Some 46 percent of those polled said they had a favorable impression of state Democratic lawmakers, while 48 percent had an unfavorable opinion. For Republicans, the ratio was 45 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable.

Public outrage on both sides prompted efforts to recall all 16 senators — eight Democrats and eight Republicans — who have been in office for at least a year, a minimum requirement for a recall. To date, organizers have submitted paperwork to recall five Republicans and three Democrats.

However, WPR found that a majority of residents favor letting the senators serve out their terms.

By a 53 percent to 35 percent margin, respondents said the Republicans should be kept in office, while a margin of 57 percent to 33 percent said the Democrats should remain.

On a separate topic, the poll found strong support for increasing the use of wind energy in Wisconsin, even if doing so would raise electricity bills by several dollars per month.

Some 77 percent of respondents want to see the state invest more in wind energy, for reasons including helping the environment and decreasing U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

A majority, 69 percent, also said they wouldn't mind having eight to 10 wind-energy machines placed closed to where they live, and 79 percent favor placing the machines offshore in Lake Michigan.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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