Protesters continue to flood Wisconsin Capitol amid budget impasse
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 12:47 AM
MADISON, WIS. - With tens of thousands of protesters jamming the Capitol and many Wisconsin schools closed for a third day, state troopers were enlisted Friday in the hunt for 14 Democratic state senators whose disappearance has prevented a vote on the new governor's controversial budget proposal.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan seeks to save the state money by curbing state employee benefits and putting tight restrictions on their collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin's deficit is projected at $30 million for the remainder of the current year; a far greater shortfall of $1.5 billion is expected next year, according to state figures.
"We're here today because we were elected to make tough decisions," Walker said at a news conference late Friday afternoon. He insisted that what he is asking is "a very modest request of our government workers."
He acknowledged, however, that he will not be able to do anything until the absent Democrats return. "You can't operate in a democracy if people don't show up," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said he asked Walker to send two state troopers to Democratic leader Mark Miller's home. But the senators appear to have decamped to Illinois - putting them out of the troopers' reach.
One of those missing senators, Robert Jauch, spoke via cellphone from "someplace in the Land of Lincoln." He said he and his colleagues understood the need for budget cuts.
"We can vote for the budget in 30 minutes," Jauch said. "This is all about the rest of the bill, which eliminates 50 years of collective bargaining law in Wisconsin."
Walker scorned the lawmakers for their absence, saying, "You can't participate in democracy if you're not in the arena. The arena is not in Rockford, Illinois. The arena is in Madison, Wisconsin, and it's time for those state senators to come home."
The governor's plan to restrict collective bargaining rights is a key piece of his budget-cutting strategy. With nearly half of the state budget going toward aid to counties, cities and school districts, Walker argues that those localities must be allowed to cut the compensation of their unionized workers. The legislation eliminates the rights of most government workers to negotiate for anything but wages.
The repercussions, both sides agree, could spread as other states grapple with growing deficits and taxpayer anger, and as President Obama and Congress consider how to deal with the forces that are driving up federal spending.
Public employee unions and their Democratic allies accuse Walker of exploiting Wisconsin's fiscal problems to weaken both the bargaining leverage and the political clout of organized labor. Union membership in the United States has been on the decline for decades; last year, for the first time, government workers, rather than those in the private sector, accounted for a majority of all union members.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stood near the entrance of the state Capitol on Friday and said Walker is "standing in the doorway of our country's most basic values and cherished aspirations. Governor Walker, you're asking too much. We won't give it to you, and you can't take it away from us."