Wisconsin Democrats boycott vote on anti-union budget plan

Milwaukee Journal SentinelFebruary 18, 2011 

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin law enforcement officers are searching for Democratic senators boycotting a Senate vote on Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair plan Thursday in an attempt to bring the lawmakers to the floor to allow Republicans to act on the bill.

As Republicans denounced the move, one Democratic senator said that he believed most of the members of his caucus are in another state. However, an aide said that at least one, Sen. Chris Larson was still in his Capitol office listening to constituents.

In a telephone interview, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller declined to give his location but acknowledged that at least one other Democrat was with him.

"I can tell you this — we're not all in one place," Miller said. "This is a watershed moment unlike any that we have experienced in our political lifetimes. The people have shown that the government has gone too far. ... We are prepared to do what is necessary to make sure that this bill gets the consideration it needs."

The bill would help balance the state budget by cutting benefits for public workers and stripping them of almost all their union bargaining rights. The political drama is taking place amid a massive demonstration of union members that is clogging the hallways of the Capitol and making the rotunda ring with chanted slogans as loud as the revving of a motorcycle engine.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that Democrats were "not showing up for work" and that police were searching for them to bring them to the floor.

"That's not democracy. That's not what this chamber is about," Fitzgerald said of the boycott to reporters.

Sen. Tim Cullen, a Democrat, confirmed Thursday that Democrats are boycotting the Senate action on the bill in efforts to block a quorum and keep the measure from passing. Because 20 senators of the 33-member house are needed to be present to pass a fiscal bill, the body's 19 Republicans will not be enough to pass the budget bill without at least one Democrat present.

"They can't pass this bill if there's not a Democrat in the chamber," Cullen said.

Cullen said he believed at least most of the Democrats were now outside Wisconsin, though he declined to say where.

"I think they're all out of state. I am anyway," Cullen said.

Speculation in the Capitol pointed to Illinois as the state where Democrats had headed.

Cullen said Democrats hope delaying the bill will give more time for union demonstrators to win over any possible wavering Republicans. He said the decision was made by other Democrats at a meeting at which he was not present.

Fitzgerald said he believed the last time such an action had happened was in the mid-1990s when the Assembly was at odds over a bill to help finance Miller Park. He said he was not sure how much authority law enforcement officials would have to compel Democrats to show up.

The tactic wasn't winning over Sen. Rob Cowles, a moderate Republican whom unions had been trying to court to vote against the bill. Cowles called the blockage of the Senate vote an attempt to "shut down democracy."

The Senate convened at 11:30, with 17 Republicans but no Democrats present. After a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, action was immediately disrupted by demonstrators in the gallery shouting, "Freedom, democracy, unions."

Senate President Mike Ellis made a call of the house to bring the three additional senators needed to vote on the bill to the Senate floor.

If a Democrat does show up for the vote, a handful of GOP senators will decide the fate of Walker's bill.

The Senate is meeting amid massive demonstrations that have so packed the Capitol that movement outside the Senate chambers is difficult at best.

Spokesmen for the Republican governor and Sen. Fitzgerald said they were confident that the GOP lawmakers had the votes they needed to pass the bill without further changes. Walker has said that the proposal's cuts to worker benefits and to decades-old union bargaining laws are needed to help balance the state's gaping budget shortfall in this year and the next two.

Republicans control the Senate 19-14, meaning they can lose only two votes and still pass the bill if all Democrats oppose it. Some Republicans have shown reluctance about the bill, though so far none have said publicly that they will vote against it.

Even after voting for the proposal in the Legislature's budget committee just before midnight Wednesday, Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican, showed his concern about the effects of the proposal on workers.

"I will probably vote for it" on the Senate floor, Olsen said.

On a 12-4 party-line vote Wednesday, the Joint Finance Committee added new civil-service protections for local government employees and kept cuts to public worker benefits. The budget committee began debating the bill at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, after Republicans spent hours behind closed doors crafting the changes.

"This will pass in that form" adopted by the committee, Sen. Fitzgerald said.

His brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said he also expected the Legislature to accept the changes the committee adopted and not make any further ones.

Some senators attempted to make significant changes to the bill Wednesday, but it appeared their efforts had failed.

The changes the committee adopted would require all local governments to create civil-service systems similar to the one for the state. It would also allow limited-term employees to keep their benefits. Some limited-term employees have worked for the state for years, and the original version of the bill would have taken away all their health care coverage and retirement benefits.

The debate in the committee was impassioned and at times emotional.

"People have said they're willing to sacrifice. Why are we going after people's rights?" asked Rep. Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat from Milwaukee.

But Rep. John Nygren, a Republican, whose wife is a teacher, said he believed the bill was needed to ensure schools are run efficiently.

"What about the right of the taxpayer to run a frugal school district?" Nygren said.

The changes did not appease the thousands of teachers and state workers who have filled the Capitol for two days.

They booed loudly as they learned the bill still would take away their union rights as they watched the committee proceedings on televisions mounted in the Capitol Rotunda.

"I think it's disgusting," said John Bausch, a Darlington music teacher in elementary and middle school.

"This is not what Wisconsin is all about. We've had collective bargaining for (50) years and to throw it all out without our say is a disgrace."

Thousands more came to the Capitol after Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, urged teachers and other Wisconsin residents to come to Madison on Thursday and Friday. She stopped short of asking teachers to walk off their jobs.

In Milwaukee, Superintendent Gregory E. Thornton said teachers are expected to be at work Thursday and Friday, and failure to do so, without a valid excuse, will result in disciplinary action.

WEAC's effort came as Madison schools closed Wednesday because more than 40 percent of teachers called in sick so they could lobby legislators. Madison schools will be closed Thursday for the same reason. Other districts also were considering closing.

Walker, who proposed the bill, said he was "disappointed" with the action by the Madison teachers and that he appreciates that other public employees are showing up for work. He said he respects workers' right to demonstrate but that he is "not intimidated into thinking that they're the only voices out there."

In a sign of the national attention the proposal is drawing, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has scheduled a telephone call with Walker for Thursday, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the federal agency. The Associated Press reported Duncan said Wednesday at a Denver conference of teacher unions and school administrators that the move in Wisconsin and other states to strip teachers of bargaining rights worries him.

In an interview with WTMJ-TV, President Barack Obama said public workers have to be prepared to make concessions but that he thought Walker's plan was unduly harsh on unions.

Walker offered the bill to help shore up the state's finances in advance of a budget to be delivered Tuesday that is expected to include major cuts in areas like aid to local schools and governments.

He first wants the budget repair bill passed to help clear up a $137 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30 and ease solving a deficit of more than $3 billion over the next two years. The cuts to benefits would save taxpayers nearly $330 million through mid-2013.

Major elements of the budget-repair bill remain in place. It would require most public workers to pay half their pension costs — typically 5.8 percent of pay for state workers — and at least 12 percent of their health care costs. It applies to most state and local employees but does not apply to police, firefighters and state troopers, who would continue to bargain for their benefits.

Except for police, firefighters and troopers, raises would be limited to inflation unless a bigger increase was approved in a referendum. The non-law enforcement unions would lose their rights to bargain over anything but wages, would have to hold annual elections to keep their organizations intact and would lose the ability to have union dues deducted from state paychecks.

The most significant change the Joint Finance Committee approved would require local governments that don't have civil-service systems to create an employee grievance system within months. Those local civil-service systems would have to address grievances for employee termination, employee discipline and workplace safety.

The bill also gives Walker's Department of Health Services the power to write rules that would change state laws dealing with medical care for children, parents and childless adults; prescription drug plans for seniors; nursing home care for the elderly; and long-term care for the elderly and disabled outside of nursing homes.

The programs that could see changes under the proposal would include the BadgerCare Plus and BadgerCare Core plans, Family Care and SeniorCare.

Lawmakers planned to modify the bill so that the Walker administration could drop people from BadgerCare Plus because of having too high an income temporarily, but not permanently. Current income eligibility standards would be restored on Jan. 1, 2015, under the changes the committee adopted.

The bill was also amended to allow the Walker administration to sell or lease state-owned heating plants but first require a review of any deals by the Joint Finance Committee.

Separate from the committee's action, individual lawmakers are hoping to make other changes to the bill.

Two GOP sources familiar with internal talks said Sens. Dale Schultz and Van Wanggaard were backing a plan to put at least some union bargaining rights back into the bill. One source said the plan would make use of devices such as sunset clause to bring back certain bargaining rights in future years.

Schultz acknowledged he was working on alternatives, though he said he couldn't comment on any details. He said he was headed to his home and expected to find both protesters and law enforcement protection there.

"Everything is a work in progress and everything is fluid and there are no lines drawn in the sand," Schultz said. "Obviously, it's a very emotional time for us."

Wanggaard sent out a statement after the budget committee action saying he would vote for the bill as amended by the panel.

"'In a democracy, making law is like making sausage.' I never fully understood that statement until this week," Wanggaard said. "No compromise is perfect, but I am thankful that the bill has been substantially modified to add additional worker protection."

Before the committee met Wednesday, Walker told reporters he still had the votes to pass the proposal without changes.

"We're willing to (make changes), but we're just not going to fundamentally undermine the principle of the proposal, which is to let not only the state but local governments balance their budgets," he said.

The committee debated the bill Wednesday night after holding a 17-hour public hearing on it that ended at 3 a.m. Wednesday. Hundreds of people were still registered to speak when Republicans halted the hearing.

Democratic lawmakers then started an impromptu hearing of their own. They were still taking testimony as of 10 p.m. Wednesday — 36 hours after the official hearing started.

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