Wisconsin Assembly passes budget bill

By Michael A. Fletcher, Ariana Eunjung Cha and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 25, 2011; 4:02 PM

MADISON, WIS. - Demonstrators continued to throng the Capitol Rotunda on Friday after the Wisconsin State Assembly voted that morning to approve a budget measure to end most of the collective-bargaining rights of public workers. The spending plan proposed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) has sparked fiery demonstrations by more than 60,000 union supporters at the State Capitol for nearly two weeks.

At the Capitol, banners saying "Caring for the people not the corporations of Wisconsin" and "Walker is High on Koch" (a reference to the support the governor receives from the conservative billionaires) were slung over railings and hung on the walls. Other protesters marched outside, some banging drums and all condemning what they called an attack on union power.

Walker was steadfast. In a statement after the vote, he praised the Assembly and said the Democratic senators who fled the state to prevent a vote on the bill that the Republican majority would pass should return to the Capitol.

"The 14 Senate Democrats need to come home and do their jobs, just like the Assembly Democrats did," Walker said.

The governor has threatened to begin laying off as many as 1,500 public employees if the bill has not passed the Senate by the end of the week -- the deadline for the state to refinance its bonds and realize savings before the end of the fiscal year.

The Assembly vote came after a marathon three-day filibuster by Democrats. That sends the bill to the state Senate, which, without at least one Democratic senator present, does not have the quorum to call a vote.

On Thursday, Republican leaders in several states softened their attacks on public employee unions in an effort to avert the demonstrations that have gripped Madison.

In Ohio, Republican lawmakers agreed to modify a bill that would have banned collective bargaining, allowing state workers to negotiate on wages. Michigan's GOP governor offered to negotiate with public employees rather than create political gridlock. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) called on GOP lawmakers to abandon their "right to work" bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for an employer to require workers to become or remain members of a labor union.

On Thursday, the Wisconsin Senate dispatched state troopers to the homes of the senators who have vowed to stay in Illinois until Walker negotiates on the budget bill. The troopers were unable to find any of the lawmakers.

Although police cannot arrest the members, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said that he hopes his colleagues will feel compelled to come back to debate the bill. The Republicans need only one Democrat to return to hold a vote on the budget legislation.

Democratic state Sen. Robert Jauch, a longtime Wisconsin lawmaker, said Thursday that despite rumors that some of his colleagues had returned to the state, "everybody is outside of Wisconsin . . . all of us."

Jauch criticized what he called the "police state mentality" of Republicans in the Capitol and took issue with Walker's assertions that Democrats who had fled the state were abandoning their duties.

"I'm doing more from the Land of Lincoln to communicate with citizens in my district than he is," Jauch said, adding that the Senate Democrats talk regularly and are "trying to reach out through back channels to see what the solution could be. This governor has dug himself in - that's very clear."

Under Walker's plan, most public workers - excluding police, firefighters and state troopers - would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay and would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. Walker, who took office last month, says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.

Walker has warned of waves of public-sector layoffs beginning Friday if the budget bill isn't passed soon, and at least one major state employer - the schools - has already begun sending out preliminary layoff notices.

The Hustisford school district, for instance, sent layoff slips to all 34 members of its teaching staff, including librarians and counselors. Among those receiving notices was Lisa Fitzgerald, a counselor who is married to the Senate majority leader.

The two-week clash over the public employee unions continues to wear on elected officials. During the filibuster, elected officials took turns sleeping on couches. Some Republican representatives' offices had to endure protesters bursting in and defacing signs supporting Walker's budget plan.

Peter Barca, a Democrat who is the Assembly's minority leader, said he was approached about 4 a.m. by the Republican speaker, who told him that "his members were tired and they were frustrated."

Barca said in an interview that he was given an ultimatum: "Unless we limited our amendments, they were going to just pull the plug. They were going to use parliamentary procedure to shut down the debate. It would get ugly."

The Assembly's Democrats had no choice, he said. "We very reluctantly agreed."

In Ohio, Republican state senators offered a concession, pushing the bill announced this week that they will reinstate collective bargaining for wages only, not for other benefits. But those lawmakers also expanded the law's proposed prohibition on strikes to apply to all public workers, including teachers. The original measure applied the ban on strikes only to public-safety personnel.

The bill could come up for a vote in the full Senate as early as Tuesday - putting Ohio to the forefront of states poised to dramatically curtail the power of public employees. Supporters say such measures are essential if state and local governments are to address their mounting budget gaps.

"There are only three ways to solve the budget crisis: raise taxes, cut programs or cut compensation packages," said Matt Mayer, a former Bush administration appointee who is president of the Buckeye Institute in Columbus, a free-market think tank. "Because of the size of the problem that we face not just at the state level but more importantly at the local level, there's just no way we're going to get the cuts to the level we need to with the unions standing in between."

chaa@washpost.com gardnera@washpost.com fletcherm@washpost.com

Fletcher reported from Madison. Gardner reported from Columbus. Staff writer Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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