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Republican Wisconsin senators bypass Democrats in vote on collective bargaining

News that the State Senate had passed a bill stripping collective bargaining rights from public workers sent the AWOL democratic senators into an emergency meeting Wednesday night. (March 10)

Not only would the measure help him close a $137 million gap in the current budget, Walker has said, but it would also help local governments deal with the deep cuts in state aid contained in his biennial budget proposal without raising taxes.

He said that approach would help improve the state's business climate and create jobs.

Without unilateral power to divert more of state workers' wages to pay for health-care and pension benefits, Walker has said, state and local governments would have to lay off as many as 12,000 employees over the next two years. Last week, he notified unions that he would lay off as many as 1,500 state workers if his budget bill was not passed.

Union leaders say the legislation's impact would be devastating for their organizations. But they also are calculating that Walker has gone too far. Activists have begun recall campaigns against eight Republican state senators, efforts they hope will culminate next year in a recall effort directed at Walker.

GOP activists are targeting some Democrats for recall. But polls show that although most people support reining in public employee benefits, they oppose removing unions' collective-bargaining rights.

"By stripping out the fiscal items and leaving only the elimination of collective bargaining, the governor has exposed himself as a fraud," said state Sen. Robert Jauch, one of the Democrats who left the state. Jauch said he will return Thursday to stand with protesters. "Tonight he has guaranteed that the people of the state of Wisconsin are going to stay engaged until this government changes."

National Democratic activists are hoping that the battle in Wisconsin energizes their supporters and creates energy that carries into the 2012 presidential contest.

"This has the potential of being a spark that builds a fire on the progressive side going into the presidential campaign," said Robert Borosage, co-chairman of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal activist group.

The governor's approach appears not to be playing well with Wisconsin voters, who elected him with 52 percent of the vote last fall.

A Rasmussen poll last week found that 57 percent of likely voters in the state disapprove of the job Walker is doing, while 43 percent approve.

The plan to pass the budget measure went into motion Wednesday when Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, leader of the state Senate's 19 Republicans, called a conference committee of leaders from both houses with just two hours' notice.

As some onlookers shouted "Shame, shame," the committee passed the streamlined bill over the protests of state House Minority Leader Peter Barca (D). "This is clearly a violation of the open-meetings law," he said of the meeting.

Barca said state law requires 24 hours' notice for public meetings, unless there is "good cause" not to provide it. But Republicans ignored his complaint, passing the measure out of the conference committee over his objections.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Barca called the maneuver "a continuation of a pattern of naked abuse of power" by Wisconsin Republicans. "They trample on democracy," he added.

Barca said he will refer the maneuver to the attorney general and will meet with fellow Democrats to seek other ways to stop the action. "This will not stand - that is one thing I will predict," he said.

After Wednesday night's vote, hundreds of protesters were assembled at the Capitol, witnesses said.

"I think you will see signatures being gathered on recall petitions at four times the rate they were yesterday," Jauch said. "This is just outrageous behavior."

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