Protesters cheer Wisconsin Democratic lawmakersFourteen Democratic lawmakers disappeared from the Capitol on Thursday, just as the Senate was about to begin debating a measure aimed at easing the state’s budget crunch that would have ended collective bargaining for public workers.
By: Scott Bauer, Associated Press
MADISON — Faced with a near-certain Republican victory that would end a half-century of collective bargaining for public workers, Wisconsin Democrats retaliated with the only weapon they had left: They fled.
Fourteen Democratic lawmakers disappeared from the Capitol on Thursday, just as the Senate was about to begin debating the measure aimed at easing the state’s budget crunch.
By refusing to show up for a vote, the group brought the debate to a swift halt and hoped to pressure Republicans to the negotiating table.
“The plan is to try and slow this down because it’s an extreme piece of legislation that’s tearing this state apart,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach said.
The move drew cheers from tens of thousands of protesters — teachers, prison guards and other public employees targeted by the proposal — who filled the Statehouse during the past three days.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who took office just last month, has made the bill a top priority. He urged the group to return and called the boycott a “stunt.”
Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville said he was back in Wisconsin on Thursday night, but he did not expect Democrats to return to take up the bill until Saturday.
With 19 seats, Republicans hold a majority in the 33-member Senate, but they are one vote short of the number needed to conduct business. So the GOP needs at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. Once the measure is brought to the floor, it needs 17 votes to pass.
Erpenbach said the group had been in Rockford, Ill., but they dispersed by late afternoon.
State Sen. Bob Jauch of Poplar joined the senators who walked out of the Senate at 11 a.m., leaving the state for Illinois instead of attending an afternoon legislative session. They intended to stick together, but two Democrats got lost.
“There are helicopters, reporters and apparently busloads of protesters to support us. I feel a little bit like O.J. Simpson.”
“I am joining my Senate Democratic colleagues to exercise our role to slow this process down and give citizens further opportunity to effect positive changes to this radical plan,” he said.
As Republicans tried to begin Senate business Thursday, observers in the gallery screamed “Freedom! Democracy! Unions!” Opponents cheered when a legislative leader announced there were not enough senators present to proceed.
The sergeant-at-arms immediately began looking for the missing lawmakers. If he cannot find them, he’s authorized to seek help, including potentially contacting police.
Senate rules and the state constitution say absent members can be compelled to appear, but it does not say how.
“Today they checked out, and I’m not sure where they’re at,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said. “This is the ultimate shutdown, what we’re seeing today.”
Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, said he was floored when Republican members of the Joint Finance Committee voted to cut of citizen testimony on the bill at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning. They voted on the bill later in the day, passing it to the Senate.
“To be able to petition your government is a freedom in the First Amendment,” Milroy said. “You may not agree with all people, but you hear both sides.”
At 2:51 p.m., Walker sent out a call for the Senators to return.
“Out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process, I am calling on Senate Democrats to show up to work today, debate legislation and cast their vote,” he said in a news release. “Their actions by leaving the state and hiding from voting are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent.”
Jauch responded with a news release of his own, accusing Walker of not listening to his constituents.
“Tens of thousands of citizens have petitioned legislative offices to change the bill,” he wrote. “I agree with them. They deserve more time to ensure their voice is heard.”
Jauch said the senators will come back in a day or two, or whenever Walker agrees to meet with them.
The drama in Wisconsin unfolded in a jam-packed Capitol. Madison police and the State Department of Administration estimated the crowd at 25,000 protesters.
School districts around Wisconsin canceled classes on Thursday after thousands of teachers, students and other demonstrators flocked to the Capitol to protest bill. Madison schools, the state’s second-largest district, with 24,000 students, closed for a second day, and dozens of other districts followed suit, with closures reported in cities including Beaver Dam, La Crosse, Mosinee, Racine, Stoughton and Watertown.
Most districts have said flatly that teachers who miss school and can’t produce a doctor’s note won’t be paid for the missed time. And while some districts said the day will need to be made up later, others were waiting to hear whether the Department of Public Instruction would recommend treating the closure as they would a snow day.
The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.
In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health-care coverage — increases Walker calls “modest” compared with those in the private sector.
Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve — $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
“I think the taxpayers will support this idea,” Fitzgerald said.
Unions still could represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above those pegged to the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized.
In exchange for bearing more costs and losing bargaining leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.
Maria Lockwood of the Superior Telegram and Mike Simonson of Wisconsin Public Radio contributed to this report.