State budget protests spread as union rights battles begin in Indiana, Ohio

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 5:59 PM

The standoff in Wisconsin over budget cuts spread to other states Tuesday as union leaders began to organize protests in other capitals and Democrats in a second state effectively staged a walkout.

In Indiana, House Republicans showed up at the Capitol on Tuesday to find no Democrats. The lawmakers were trying to block a bill backed by Republicans that they say would restrict private-sector union rights. Without the Democrats, the Republicans lack a two-thirds majority needed for a quorum. The walkout comes after Wisconsin Senate Democrats left the Capitol last week to hold up a vote on the governor's plan to curtail union benefits and collective-bargaining rights for public workers.

In Ohio, thousands of pro-union protesters gathered in Columbus on Tuesday, prompting officials there to lock the doors to the Statehouse, the Associated Press reports. The state legislature is considering a bill that might end collective bargaining for state workers.

And in New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced a state budget Tuesday that would double a property tax rebate program only if lawmakers voted to require public workers pay 30 percent of their health-care benefits, more than triple what they pay now.

Christie faces a $10.5 billion budget gap. Since he took office in January 2010, he has focused on building a lean government with low taxes. Although he was praised nationally by some last year for cutting spending, others said his budget indirectly raised property taxes. On Friday, state Democrats accused Christie of partisanship because he vetoed 14 bills that would have given hundreds of millions in annual tax cuts for businesses.

Wisconsin's 14 Senate Democrats were absent again on Tuesday, as Republicans tried to lure them back to the capitol by scheduling a vote on another bill that the Democrats want to kill.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, had threatened to push forward a committee vote on a bill that would require voters to show ID - a measure that Democrats have fought for years because they argued it could make it more difficult for minorities and the elderly to vote.

Fitzgerald said that in the Democrats' absence, the remaining legislators had no choice but to go forward with business as usual. Even though the Democrats "are not here to represent their constituents," he said, "we're here to work."

Thousands have converged on the state Capitol over the past week to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan, which would strip most public employees of collective-bargaining rights. The conflict could escalate in the coming days. Walker issued a warning to state employees Monday that they could receive layoff notices as early as next week if there's no agreement to his plan to roll back benefits for public workers to make up for budget shortfalls.

National Democrats have thrown their weight behind the Wisconsin protesters. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) e-mailed supporters, asking them to help raise money to elect more Democrats to the Wisconsin legislature.

"If you support collective-bargaining rights, join me in making a contribution to help elect more Democrats to the Wisconsin State Senate and show Governor Walker he can't take us back to the 1920s," he wrote. "This is an important fight that could be a turning point for workers across America. We need to stand together on this."

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