TRENTON, N.J. - The offensive by Republican governors to tackle the power of public employee unions sparked new clashes Tuesday as protesters descended on Ohio's capitol and Democratic lawmakers in Indiana fled the state to avoid a vote on anti-union legislation.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ratcheted up the pressure on state employees by linking relief from property taxes to sharp increases in what government workers pay for health insurance.
The budget fights initiated by Republican governors represent a multi-state effort by like-minded politicians to solve budgetary problems in part by weakening public employee unions and demanding significant concessions from workers. After the November elections, Republicans now control many more state legislatures and governorships.
Although the particulars may differ - some governors are seeking to end collective bargaining rights, others are not - the state executives share both a political philosophy and a conviction that the public is prepared to support these measures if they help fix long-term budgetary problems.
Republican officials said there is no coordinated campaign underway. Governors are loosely communicating, sharing text messages and occasional phone calls as they offer moral support to one another.
The Republican Governors Association is looking to offer additional political cover to the governors, starting with a new Web site aimed at bolstering Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose state remains ground zero in the current fight over public employee rights and compensation.
The mass protests that erupted in Wisconsin last week intensified elsewhere Tuesday. Democratic lawmakers in the Indiana House followed the lead of their counterparts in Wisconsin, refusing to show up at the capitol and thus preventing Republicans from having the two-thirds quorum needed to vote on numerous bills, including a controversial measure that would curtail private-sector union rights.
At issue is a "right to work" bill that would no longer require private-sector workers to belong to a union or pay for union representation. Union officials have called the effort an attempt to weaken workers' collective bargaining power. The bill's author, Republican Rep. Jerry Torr, has said it is an effort to draw employers to the state and create jobs.
The protests unfolding in Wisconsin and Indiana also played out in Ohio on Tuesday, as thousands of people assembled outside the state capitol in Columbus in opposition to a bill put forward by GOP lawmakers that would restrict collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The wave of demonstrations has provoked a national debate over the power of public employee unions, as well as how states and the federal government should reduce their massive budget deficits. States across the country are facing unprecedented fiscal gaps as they deal with the fallout of the recession, which severely reduced their revenue while increasing demand for programs such as unemployment insurance and health care for the poor.
The controversy has also proved an important moment for public employee unions, whose interests are being pitted against those of other taxpayers.
Appearing before a joint session of the New Jersey legislature here in Trenton, Christie used a budget address to cast public employees as a special interest that enjoys pension and health-care benefits, along with job security, that are increasingly rare in the private sector. The governor urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would effectively undercut the collective bargaining leverage of public employees.
The plain- spoken Christie has emerged as a leader of a growing group of governors that is attacking yawning budget deficits by facing down public employees and promising not to raise taxes.
Christie's willingness to confront public employees, in a state where they hold considerable sway, has catapulted him to national prominence, and some Republicans have discussed him as a possible candidate in the 2012 presidential race - something Christie says he has no interest in.
"Let's pass real reform this spring and use the proceeds to double the property tax relief for middle-class New Jerseyans and seniors," Christie said. "Please, let's not pick the special interests over our overburdened taxpayers."
A similar debate continues to play out in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of protesters are returning day after day to the state capitol to lash out at a proposal by Walker that would force public workers such as schoolteachers to pay for more of their pension and health care while limiting their ability to bargain over such benefits in the future.
The standoff over the controversial legislation showed no signs of abating Tuesday. Protesters descended once again on the capitol building in Madison, demanding that Walker bend. Public employee unions have offered to accept some pension and benefit givebacks, but have drawn the line at giving up collective bargaining rights.
Wisconsin's 14 Senate Democrats, who fled the state late last week to prevent a vote on the contentious measure, vowed to stay away until Walker agreed to compromise.
But the governor and Senate Republicans have been unwilling to budge, arguing that state and local officials must be able to compel sacrifices from union workers in order to avoid layoffs and absorb huge cuts that are coming in federal aid to states. Walker warned again Tuesday that as many as 1,500 state workers could face layoffs soon if his bill does not pass by week's end - the deadline for the state to refinance its bonds and realize savings before the end of the fiscal year.
National Democrats have thrown their weight behind the Wisconsin protesters. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (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."
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, paid a visit to the Wisconsin capitol Friday, hours before civil rights activist Jesse Jackson did. The Service Employees International Union has maintained a large presence in the state, and members of President Obama's organizing arm are also on hand.
In addition, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has organized rallies and vigils in more than 22 states in support of unionized workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states were bargaining rights are under fire.
Meanwhile, influential conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, funded in part by billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch, helped organize a counter-rally at the Wisconsin capitol over the weekend and have set up a Web site in support of Walker and his proposals. The group said Tuesday that it will run a television ad in Wisconsin to urge citizens to back the governor.
In New Jersey, Christie said he would double a state property-tax credit program if lawmakers enact legislation requiring public employees to pay 30 percent of their health-care premiums by 2014. New Jersey workers now pay an average of 8 percent of their premiums.
The governor's proposal further turns up the heat on public employee unions, most of whose contracts expire in June, by promising to make a $506 million pension payment this year if legislators enact a previous proposal to reduce pension benefits.
He has called on legislators to increase the retirement age of state workers and eliminate cost-of-living adjustments.
Though studies show that state employees are generally paid less than comparably educated private workers, public employees often enjoy more generous pension and health-care benefits, and these are at the root of the long-term budget problems confronting many states.
Operating in a traditionally Democratic state, Christie has settled on a strategy of talking tough while limiting the leverage that public employees have at the negotiating table. He applauded the governors who are going after employees' negotiating rights.
"In Wisconsin and Ohio, they have decided there can no longer be two classes of citizens: one that receives the rich health and pension benefits, and the rest who are left to pay for them," he said.
Christie also noted that Democratic governors in states including New York and California are promising to balance budgets in large part by reducing benefits and pay for public employees. "These ideas are not red or blue," Christie said. "They are the black and white of truth."
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.