Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Monday afternoon he won't negotiate over his plan to strip most collective bargaining rights from nearly every public employee as he works to plug a $3.6 billion hole in the state budget.
Walker said at a news conference in his conference room in the Capitol, where thousands have been demonstrating against his plan for a week, that he won't accept any compromises.
Democrats and the unions say they would accept an increase in the cost of benefits, but not removal of collective bargaining rights. Walker rejected that idea.
Senate Democrats skipped town Thursday and said they won't return unless Walker is willing to make concessions on his bill.
"For those 14 Senate Democrats, you've had your time," Walker said. "Now it's time to come home."
Walker warned that at least 1,500 layoffs could result if Democrats don't return and the bill is not passed soon.
The newly elected Republican blamed most of the state's budget woes on previous budgets passed by his Democratic predecessor and majority.
Walker's afternoon press conference echoed comments aired Monday morning that he made to msnbc's Chuck Todd.
Walker in the interview called his bill "incredibly fair" and said it would help the state avoid sweeping job cuts.
On day seven of the continuing protests against the bill at the Wisconsin Capitol, Walker insisted it was not political and was designed to make savings to help balance the budget.
"We're broke. Like nearly every other state across the country, we have a major deficit," he told Todd on The Daily Rundown program.
Walker said removing some collective bargaining rights would save money and help stop people being laid off.
"We've got to balance the budget and we can't do it with a short-term fix," he said, saying an alternative plan put forward by the union would just push the problem into the future.
"I don't want to see thousands upon thousands of people laid off at the state and local level. What we are proposing is a much better alternative," Walker added.
He said suggestions his plan was political — because some unions such as firefighters and police are exempt — were "bogus" as most police and firefighter unions did not support him.
'It applies to me'"Overall what we're talking about is something that's incredibly fair — it applies to me and my family, to my cabinet, the legislature as well as all the other workers at the state and local government level," Walker added.
Protests against his plan started Tuesday and have gained steam each day.
An estimated 68,000 people turned out Saturday with all but a few thousand opposed the bill, but the day marked the first time that a significant contingent of Walker supporters showed up to counter-protest. There were no clashes.
Hundreds of pro-union protesters gathered inside the Capitol on Sunday, as snow turned into freezing rain that made walking outside the building a challenge. Thousands more braved cold winds and temperatures in the 20s to march again on Monday, waving signs that said "Stop the attack on Wisconsin families" and "solidarity."
The 14 Senate Democrats who skipped town Thursday to indefinitely delay a vote on Walker's bill remained missing in action for a fifth day.
"You have shut down the people's government, and that is not acceptable," Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said during a brief meeting Monday setting the agenda for Tuesday's Senate session.
Two of the missing Democrats participated by phone from an undisclosed location.
"You're not in negotiations. There is no negotiation," Fitzgerald said, cutting off one of the Democrats on the phone. "You need to get back to the floor of the Senate and offer any ideas you may have on final passage. That's where we're at. There is no negotiation."
Both the Senate and Assembly planned to be in session on Tuesday to take up the bill, but at least one of the missing Democrats needed to show up for a vote to be taken in the Senate. Assembly Democrats planned to offer dozens of amendments that could push a vote into Wednesday or later.
Although Tuesday's list of items, including the resolution honoring the Packers, is largely bipartisan, Fitzgerald hinted that he might try to push some more controversial ones later, even if the Democrats aren't back. Among the possibilities is a vote on the question of whether voters should be required to show identification at the polls.
The Democratic senators taking part in the scheduling meeting urged Republicans to accept the offer made by the unions under which they would accept paying more for benefits as Walker wants but still retain their collective bargaining rights.
Another compromise offered by Republican Sen. Dale Schultz would remove collective bargaining rights just for two years
"It's time for all of us to move forward," said Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay over the phone to the Republicans.
Walker has rejected both offers.
The emergency plan he wants the Legislature to pass would 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.
Thousands of those affected and their supporters marched on the Capitol for a seventh straight day. Hundreds of them have been sleeping in the rotunda every night and several districts have had to close after so many teachers called in sick. The Madison School District was closed Wednesday through Monday but was expected to reopen Tuesday.
Districts in central Wisconsin were also closed Monday, but that was because of 10 to 12 inches of snow. Milwaukee schools were shut down for a pre-scheduled midsemester break. Those closures, on top of Monday being a previously scheduled furlough day for state workers, resulted in another large crowd Monday but an official estimate was not yet released.
Rage against the governor
At noon, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine took to a stage on the Capitol steps to fire up the crowd. He said he flew in from California to lend his voice to the protest.
"The future of workers' rights will be decided in Madison, Wisconsin," he said. "You're making history here."
He joked that he could hardly play the guitar because his fingers were numb. He sang a song with the refrain, "For the union men and women standing up and standing strong!" Each time he repeated that lyric, the crowd roared.
Watched across the U.S.
The dispute is being watched around the country because if Walker prevails in Wisconsin, other conservative Republican governors may try to go after powerful public employee unions as part of their budget-cutting policies.
Defeating the Wisconsin bill and others like it is crucial for public-sector unions, an important part of the Democratic Party base.
President Barack Obama and other Democrats will need the strong support of unions in the 2012 elections — especially in key swing states like Wisconsin — to counter a huge influx of corporate funds allowed under a Supreme Court decision last year.
Nearly every major union leader — both public and private sector — has united behind an ambitious $30 million plan to stop anti-labor measures in Wisconsin and at least 10 other states.
Legislative action on the bill came to a halt Thursday when 14 Democratic state senators fled the state to delay a vote.
They have remained in hiding Sunday, but Walker told Fox News Sunday he thought they would return to work early this week.
"Democracy means you show up and participate and they failed to do that," he said. "They're walking out on their job."