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Wis. governor turns up pressure on Democrats

With their Senate colleagues still in hiding, Democrats in the Wisconsin Assembly began introducing a barrage of 100 amendments Tuesday to try to stymie the Republican governor's plan to strip unionized public employees of most of their bargaining rights.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

With their Senate colleagues still in hiding, Democrats in the Wisconsin Assembly began introducing a barrage of 100 amendments Tuesday to try to stymie the Republican governor's plan to strip unionized public employees of most of their bargaining rights.

Both houses of the GOP-controlled Legislature convened shortly before noon amid noisy protests outside the state Capitol that began more than a week ago in an epic showdown that is being watched nervously by organized labor across the country.

The Senate was unable to take up the union measure because its 14 Democrats skipped town last week, denying the chamber a quorum. But Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald pledged that his chamber would approve the bill this week, despite the blizzard of Democratic amendments.

Turning up the pressure on the Democrats, Gov. Scott Walker warned that state employees could start receiving layoff notices as early as next week if the bill isn't passed soon. The layoffs couldn't take effect immediately — existing union contracts could forestall them for weeks or months — and Walker wouldn't say which jobs he would go after first.

"Hopefully we don't get to that point," the governor said in a statement.

Borrowing the strategy pioneered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walker planned to take his case straight to the voters Tuesday evening with a fireside chat.

Similar battles take shape in Indiana, Ohio
While Wisconsin remained the main front in the national debate over union rights, similar battles were taking shape in other states.

In Indiana, House Democrats walked out of the Statehouse on Tuesday, blocking a GOP-backed bill against mandatory union dues. Only three of the 40 Democratic members of the chamber were present, depriving it of a quorum. The Indianapolis Star that the Democrats had fled the state to go to Illinois or Kentucky.

The state's Republican governor says he will not compromise on a bill that will eliminate most of public employees' collective bargaining rights as pro-union protesters stand their ground in Wisconsin's Capitol.

A similar debate in Ohio drew thousands of union protesters Tuesday, prompting officials there to lock the doors to the Statehouse.

In Wisconsin, if lawmakers take no action on the union bill by the end of the week, the state will not be able to refinance debt that Walker had counted on for $165 million worth of savings under the legislation. The governor warned that not doing that would force even deeper cuts and possibly lead to 1,500 layoffs by July.

Republican leaders in both the Senate and Assembly said they have the votes to pass the bill.

Fitzgerald said the bill was a key part of the Republican agenda to cut government spending that won the GOP majorities in the Legislature in November.

"When you talk about a compromise, no. We're going to make a reform," the Assembly speaker said.

'Tempers are going to flare'
Debate began on the bill in the Assembly around noon with Democrats railing against the way the Republicans handled votes when the bill first came up last Friday. Given the number of amendments Democrats were proposing, an actual vote on the measure may not happen until Wednesday or later.

"It's going to be a long day," Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said at the start of debate. "Tempers are going to flare."

The roar of protesters in the Capitol rotunda, many of whom were banging on drums and chanting through megaphones, could be heard while both the Senate and Assembly met.

The Wisconsin bill would force state and local public workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health care and would strip them of the right to negotiate benefits and working conditions. They would largely be limited to negotiating pay raises no greater than the inflation rate.

The proposal, designed to help Wisconsin plug a projected $3.6 billion hole in the budget, has led to eight straight days of monumental protests that grew as large as 68,000 people on Saturday.

The Senate was stymied for a second time in its attempts to take up the bill after none of the 14 Democrats who skipped town on Thursday showed up. Under Senate rules, 20 lawmakers must be present to take up a budget bill. There are only 19 Republicans.

Remaining lawmakers take up non-budget issues
Unable to act on Walker's proposal, the remaining Republicans instead took up some non-controversial measures, voting to extend tax breaks to dairy farmers and unanimously commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl. The Senate does not need a quorum to deal with non-budget matters.

Unlike last Thursday, when the Senate galleries were filled with protesters who disrupted action by shouting, only about a dozen people showed up under heavier security to watch the action on Tuesday.

In the Assembly, the gallery was packed with hundreds of spectators who watched the debate without causing any disruption. Democrats wore orange shirts to show solidarity with protesters that read, "Fighting for working families." Thousands more people watched the debate on TV monitors inside the rotunda.

Walker and Republican leaders have repeatedly called on the Senate Democrats, who fled to Illinois, to return and get back to work. Democrats have said they won't come back until Walker is willing to negotiate.

"We'd love to come back today," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach. "We could be up there this afternoon and pass this if he would agree to removing the language that has absolutely nothing to do with balancing the budget."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker warned Tuesday that state employees could start receiving layoff notices as early as next week if a bill eliminating most collective bargaining rights isn't passed soon.

Walker said in a statement to The Associated Press that the layoffs wouldn't take effect immediately. He didn't say which workers would be targeted but he has repeatedly warned that up to 1,500 workers could lose their jobs by July if his proposal isn't passed.

"Hopefully we don't get to that point," Walker said.

It could take weeks or even months to lay off workers under the terms of their current union contracts.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald announced Tuesday the Republican-led chamber would pass its version of a bill cutting collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Fitzgerald said Republicans were elected to lead the Assembly in November to make deep cuts to state spending, and they will deliver on that pledge.

"When you talk about a compromise, no. We're going to make a reform," Fitzgerald said.

Wis. Democrats walk out
Senate Democrats walked out last week rather than vote on Walker's bill that would force public workers to pay more for their benefits. He also wants to eliminate collective bargaining for nearly all workers except concerning salary increases that aren't greater than the Consumer Price Index.

The proposal, designed to help Wisconsin plug a projected $3.6 billion budget hole, has led to eight straight days of massive protests that grew as large as 68,000 people on Saturday.

Security was tight in the Capitol on Tuesday morning as both the Senate and Assembly were in session. Democrats in the Assembly planned to push for adoption of more than 100 amendments.

The Senate continued to be stymied in its ability to vote on the bill after the 14 Democrats walked out on Thursday, making it impossible for the remaining Republicans to take up the measure. The Democrats stayed away again on Tuesday, while the 19 Republicans continued on with other business, including passing a resolution commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl and extending a tax break to dairy farmers.

The Senate met under the watchful eye of state patrol troopers, but only about 15 members of the public, in the galleries. The roar of protesters chanting and beating on drums just outside the Senate chamber in the Capitol Rotunda could be heard as Republicans conducted its business.

Walker and Republican leaders have repeatedly called on the Democrats, who escaped to Illinois, to return and get back to work.

Democrats have said they won't come back until Walker is willing to negotiate.

In Indiana, too?Meanwhile, The Indianapolis Star reported Tuesday that Democratic members of Indiana's House had left the state to go to Illinois or Kentucky to protest Republican-backed labor bills.

Speakers at a midday rally in Indiana on Tuesday told the union members that Republicans had declared a "war on labor" with proposals restricting teacher collective bargaining and so-called right-to-work legislation.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he noticed the lack of cars in the legislators' parking lot and that Democrats couldn't be found meeting in the Statehouse.

Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson responded that her fellow Democrats were "together and working" when she last saw them Tuesday morning. She said they were still in the city.

The absence of the Democrats prevents the House from having a quorum to conduct business.

Walker rejects concessions
Public employees have said they would agree to concessions Walker wants that would amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average, but they want to retain their collective bargaining rights. One Republican senator also has floated an alternative that would make the elimination of those rights temporary.

Walker has repeatedly rejected both offers, saying local governments and school districts can't be hamstrung by the often lengthy collective bargaining process. He says they need to have more flexibility to deal with up to $1 billion in cuts he will propose in his budget next week and into the future.

It's a high-stakes game of political chicken that has riveted the nation and led to ongoing public protests. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are budging: Walker says he won't negotiate, and the 14 missing Senate Democrats say they won't return until he does.

"We'd love to come back today," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 who went to Illinois. "We could be up there this afternoon and pass this if he would agree to removing the language that has absolutely nothing to do with balancing the budget."

Republicans planned to forge ahead with other business Tuesday, including a resolution honoring the Green Bay Packers for winning the Super Bowl and a bill extending tax breaks to dairy farmers.

Those bills have bipartisan support, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — Jeff Fitzgerald's brother — has tried to put pressure on Democrats by threatening to take up more controversial matters, such as a GOP-backed proposal requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.

"You have shut down the people's government, and that is not acceptable," Fitzgerald said to Democrats during a brief meeting Monday setting the Senate's agenda for Tuesday. Two Democratic senators participated in the meeting by phone.

Democrats counter that Walker could compromise and put an end to the stalemate.

"It's right in front of the governor," Miller said. "He just needs to pick it up and allow us to move on. ... This is a no-brainer."

'Scott Walker has got to go!'
As Walker spoke under heavy guard at a late Monday afternoon news conference inside his conference room, thousands of protesters could be heard through the doors blowing whistles, banging on drums and chanting "Scott Walker has got to go!"

"This guy is power drunk and we're here to sober him up," said Bert Zipperer, 54, a counselor at a Madison middle school who was among the protesters. "He wants to do it unilaterally without any compromise. He wants to be a national conservative hero and he thinks he can get away with this."

Walker's plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum. Unions would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.

The emergency plan is meant to address this year's $137 million shortfall and start dealing with the $3.6 billion hole expected by mid-2013. The benefits concessions would amount to $30 million this year, but the largest savings Walker proposed comes from refinancing debt to save $165 million.

That portion must be done by Friday for bonds to be refinanced in time to realize the savings by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.

Walker said not passing the bill by Friday would make even deeper cuts necessary and possibly result in laying off 1,500 workers over the next four months.