Wis. Assembly takes up bargaining rights measureMADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers argued again Thursday over an explosive proposal to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, with Democrats offering last-ditch objections before a vote expected to approve the measure and deliver one of the strongest blows to unions in years.
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers argued again Thursday over an explosive proposal to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, with Democrats offering last-ditch objections before a vote expected to approve the measure and deliver one of the strongest blows to unions in years.
Debate began in the Assembly after re-energized protests prompted a temporary lockdown and security sweep at the state Capitol, where demonstrators had flocked to try to block representatives’ access to their chamber.
Once inside, Republican leaders agreed to two hours of discussion before a vote. But they made clear their intention to stand by Gov. Scott Walker's proposal and his insistence that it's necessary to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
“This is the first piece of the puzzle,” said Republican speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. “We're broke.”
The proposal has touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions amid efforts to slash government spending. Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio's Legislature and several other states are debating measures to curb union rights in smaller doses.
Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate unexpectedly move Walker's plan forward Wednesday night. They used a simple procedural move to take all spending issues out of the legislation, which allowed them to pass the measure without Democrats who fled to Illinois three weeks ago in an effort to block a vote.
Walker has said he will sign the measure as soon as possible after the Assembly votes.
“We were willing to talk, we were willing to work, but in the end at some point the public wants us to move forward,” Walker said during a Thursday appearance in Milwaukee.
Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca told his colleagues back in Madison that “democracy is ceasing to exist in Wisconsin.”
“This is wrong, terribly wrong,” Barca said.
The state's 14 Senate Democrats fled three weeks ago to Illinois to prevent their chamber from having enough members present to pass the plan. The Senate requires a quorum of 20 to take up any measures that spend money.
But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted Wednesday to take all spending measures out of the legislation and the Senate approved it minutes later, 18-1. Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the lone no vote.
“I voted my conscience which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them,” Schultz said in a statement.
Some Democrats argued the special committee violated Wisconsin open meetings laws and that any business conducted there was illegal. The Senate's chief clerk said late Wednesday that the meeting was properly held. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he cleared the action with the Legislature's attorneys, the nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau and bill drafters.
Until Wednesday's stunning vote, it appeared the stalemate would persist until Senate Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile. But in a matter of minutes, it was over.
The Democrats may now turn renewed energy toward current efforts to recall eight of the Republican state senators. Six Democratic senators also are the target of recall efforts.
Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin said Thursday morning that he and his colleagues were either heading back to Wisconsin from Illinois or would be leaving soon. But Holperin said he didn't expect any of them to show up at the Capitol because the Senate isn't scheduled to be in session again until April 5.
“We are going to watch and see how the Assembly unfolds,” Sen. Spencer Coggs said Wednesday night. “There will be fireworks. There will be a lot of people at the Capitol and so it will be hard to get in and out of the Capitol.”
Walker has repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
Union leaders, who were unhappy with previous offers of concessions by Walker, were furious at the Senate's move to push the measure forward with a quick vote. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said after Wednesday's vote that Republicans exercised a “nuclear option.”
“Scott Walker and the Republicans’ ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable,” Neuenfeldt said.
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Jason Smathers in Madison, and videographer Robert Ray in Grayslake, Ill., contributed to this report.