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By John McCormick, Bloomberg News (TNS)

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said legislation that will weaken labor unions and burnish his image as a Republican presidential candidate wasn’t his brainchild.

At a bill-signing Monday, Walker said the push for the right-to-work bill, passed last week by the legislature, came from lawmakers themselves.

“Our leaders here led,” Walker, 47, said during a ceremony in Brown Deer, Wis. “It was the leadership you see here who drove the train on this.”

The measure allows employees in union workplaces to opt out of dues and membership. Wisconsin becomes the 25th U.S. state to enact such a law, joining neighbors Iowa, Indiana and Michigan.

Before Walker’s November re-election, he’d said that he didn’t expect right-to-work to be taken up this legislative session, even calling it a “distraction.” After the Republican-controlled legislature began moving the bill, saying it would draw business, Walker said he’d sign it.

The signing was held at Badger Meter Inc., a suburban Milwaukee manufacturer of flow measurement and control technology. Chief Executive Officer Rich Meeusen last week threatened to move jobs from the state if the legislation didn’t pass.

“This is one more tool that will help grow good-paying, family-supporting jobs here in the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said. “It’s a huge incentive.”

In 2011, Walker made a national name for himself — becoming a villain to unions and a hero to Republicans — by pushing through a law that removed collective-bargaining rights for most of Wisconsin’s public employees.

That triggered protests by as many as 100,000, including some who occupied the Capitol in Madison during a weekslong standoff. The protest generated by the right-to-work measure was tame by comparison, never drawing more than a few thousand.

“In August 2014, Gallup found 74 percent of Republicans nationwide supported right to work, so this is a popular position within the party and among primary voters,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.

Walker’s history with labor has made him a target of protest along the early presidential campaign trail. Dozens of pro-union activists demonstrated Saturday evening outside a hotel where he spoke in Dubuque, Iowa.

“As Scott Walker campaigns for president, his signature today making Wisconsin the 25th right to work state only cements his legacy of lowered standards, extreme division, and diminished opportunity,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement.

Democrats said the bill was rushed through and meant to distract from Walker’s budgetary challenges.

Without changes, Wisconsin faces a deficit that may reach $2.2 billion in a two-year period starting in July, according to his administration’s analysts. Tax cuts promoted by Walker, along with Medicaid spending, contributed to the gap.

Walker’s aides have said he’s unlikely to formally announce a presidential bid until after Wisconsin lawmakers finish the budget, probably in June.

Photo: Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

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