Correction to This Article
This article about the Wisconsin Senate passing Gov. Scott Walker's plan to curtail collective-bargaining rights for public employees incorrectly said that the measure would require state workers to pay more for their health-care coverage and pensions. That provision was stripped out of the bill.
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Wisconsin Assembly approves bill to slash union rights for public workers

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.

The legislative maneuver used to pass the bill in Wisconsin was met with outrage by Democrats and their allies, and they vowed that Walker and state Senate Republicans would pay with their jobs.

"The vote does nothing to create jobs, does nothing to strengthen our state, and shows finally and utterly that this was never about anything but raw political power," said Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "We now put our total focus on recalling the eligible Republicans who voted for this bill. And we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall."

Walker, however, appeared undaunted as he applauded the Senate's action. In a statement, he said the state could not afford to be paralyzed any longer by a controversy that had caused Democratic senators to flee for Illinois and brought tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol.

"Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," Walker said. "In order to move the state forward, I applaud the legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government."

The bill would eliminate most collective bargaining for public employees across Wisconsin, while preventing unions from requiring members to pay dues, and stopping unions from collecting dues with payroll deductions.

Walker's measure would also require state workers to pay more for their health care and pensions - something they had agreed to do.

Though Wisconsin's budget problems are modest when compared with those of other states, Walker said the bill was necessary to ensure the state's fiscal future.

Not only will it help him close a $137 million gap in the current budget, Walker has said, but it would help local governments deal with the huge cuts in state aid contemplated in his biennial budget proposal, without raising taxes. He said his approach will 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 repair bill was not enacted.

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

GOP activists also are targeting some Democrats for recall. But polls show that though most people support reining in public employee benefits, they oppose stripping 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 Jauch said Wednesday. "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 for them that carries into the 2012 presidential election.

"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 aggressive 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 Wisconsin disapprove of the job Walker is doing, while 43 percent approve.

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

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

Barca said that state law requires 24-hour 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 that he was referring the action to the attorney general and was going to 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 noisy protesters were again gathered 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."

Staff writers Peter Whoriskey and Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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