By Jason Stein, Patrick Marley and Bill Glauber/ Journal Sentinel Online (Milwaukee, WI) / Feb. 18, 2011
Madison — With Senate Democrats still missing, the Wisconsin Assembly convened at 9 a.m. Friday to take up Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill as activists continue to fill the State Capitol, drinking coffee, banging drums and digging in for another daylong drama.
In the Capitol rotunda, Democratic activist Jesse Jackson was cheered by the crowd.
In the Senate, Republicans came to the floor at 9:30 and did a call for all senators to come to the floor. But for the second straight day, Democrats did not show up – a move that blocks a vote on Walker’s bill to cut public worker benefits and strip public unions of most bargaining rights.
Andrew Welhouse, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), said that State Patrol troopers have been sent to the Monona home of Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, a Democrat, to see if he is there and bring him back for a vote on the measure. On Thursday at least, Democrats were hiding out in Illinois, outside the jurisdiction of the State Patrol.
No one answered the phone at Miller’s home Friday morning. A spokesman for Miller said he would have a statement soon.
Welhouse said that at the direction of Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), Senate Sergeant at Arms Ted Blazel requested the action from the troopers after the call for Democrats to return to the Senate was made by GOP leaders.
Blazel, who has a nonpartisan profile and has served under both Democrats and Republicans, said he has always known he might have to make such a request because of his position but hadn’t ever planned on it.
“I didn’t plan on doing it, but I know it’s always a possibility,” Blazel said.
Inside the Capitol, the noise is already building up toward Thursday’s deafening levels. Outside, the showdown in Madison is now reverberating across the state and nation. Public schools in Wisconsin’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, are shut down Friday because of a “sick out” by teachers, leaving tens of thousands of parents and students scrambling to make other plans.
Organized labor is also gearing up a national effort to back the Wisconsin unions. At a noon rally in front of the Capitol, national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is expected to join thousands of demonstrators. His appearance, and behind-the-scenes organizing help from unions with national reach, shows just how great the stakes are in Wisconsin for the national labor movement.
Meanwhile, tea party activists are busily organizing a counter rally that is scheduled for Saturday between noon and 3 p.m. in front of the State Capitol.
Yet for all the activity, Walker’s budget-repair bill is bogged down by one fact: Senate Democrats have fled the state. Without the Democrats, the Senate is unable to vote on the bill.
Democratic senators boycotted a Senate vote Thursday on Walker’s budget-repair plan, forcing Republicans to put off further action in that house until Friday at the earliest. As of Friday morning, their whereabouts were still unclear.
With Democrats hiding out just over the Illinois border and drawing national media attention, Republicans had too few lawmakers to take a vote Thursday and had to adjourn. With thousands of demonstrators swarming the Capitol Square, GOP lawmakers vowed to come back Friday morning to try to take up the proposal, which would help solve a state budget shortfall by cutting public employee benefits and most public union bargaining rights.
Democrats holed up for a time in the Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center in Rockford, Ill., while Republicans said they wanted law enforcement to bring them to the Capitol if they were still in Wisconsin. Walker called for Democrats to call off their “stunt” and “show up and do the job they’re paid to do.”
“It’s either a matter of making reductions and making modest requests of our government employees or making massive layoffs at a time when we don’t need anyone else laid off,” Walker said.
Walker said that he had received more than 8,000 e-mails on the issue, with the majority of them backing his stance.
Democrats and union leaders said their concerns were focused on losing decades-old bargaining rights, not the financial concessions. In a telephone interview from an undisclosed location, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) said he was upholding the rights of workers by allowing for more debate on the bill.
“This is a watershed moment unlike any that we have experienced in our political lifetimes,” Miller said. “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.“
Several Democratic senators declined to comment on how long they’d stay away from the Capitol. Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) said late Thursday the decision on when to return had not been made yet.
The political drama played out amid a massive demonstration of union members that clogged the hallways of the Capitol and made the rotunda ring with chanted slogans as loud as the revving of a motorcycle engine.
For the third straight day, thousands demonstrated inside and outside the Capitol. With drums pounding in the background, the crowd blocked the main entrance to the Senate by sitting down in front of it, though police kept a side entrance open.
The scene and mood on the marble floors was part angry protest, part carnival and part sleep-in. There were placards, Valentine balloons, banjos, air horns and an American flag.
At least nine people were arrested in the protests at the Capitol, the state Department of Administration reported Thursday afternoon. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said those were mostly disorderly conduct charges and no one had been taken to jail.
Mahoney, a Democrat and former union leader, said officers are in the Capitol to protect the free speech rights of both sides. He said there are roughly a dozen law enforcement groups at the Capitol.
“We are exercising extreme measures of tolerance,” Mahoney said.
Assembly action possible
Assembly GOP leaders have not ruled out the possibility of voting on the bill early Friday, said John Jagler, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon).
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said Assembly Democrats were focused on drafting amendments to the bill. He left open the possibility that Assembly Democrats would leave town like the Senate Democrats to prevent the Assembly from acting.
But that scenario appears unlikely. To pass a budget bill in that house, 58 members of the Assembly must be present. There are 57 Republicans in the Assembly, and Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer (I-Manitowoc) said he plans to vote for the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said that Democrats in his house were “not showing up for work” and that he wanted law enforcement to bring them back.
“That’s not democracy. That’s not what this chamber is about,” Fitzgerald said of the boycott.
The state constitution says lawmakers can be compelled to attend floor sessions. Senate Chief Clerk Rob Marchant said he was “researching the extent to which law enforcement can be involved” in doing that.
Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) first confirmed Thursday morning that Democrats were 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 are not enough to pass the budget repair bill without at least one Democrat present.
Cullen said Democrats hope delaying the bill will give more time for union demonstrators to win over any possible wavering Republicans or force Walker to negotiate. Walker has said he hopes to finish the bill in the coming days by Feb. 25 for an offering of state bonds that would be affected by the budget-repair bill.
The Rockford Register Star reported that Democratic senators arrived at the Clock Tower at about 10:30 a.m. and left later in the day. State Sen. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) told the Illinois newspaper that Democrats wanted more time to understand the bill and debate its impacts.
“This is pretty significant legislation that would take away decades of collective bargaining rights,” Holperin said.
Scott Fitzgerald said he believed the last time such an action happened was in October 1995. At that time, then-Sen. Joe Wineke (D-Verona) fled the Senate to block passage of the $250 million Miller Park stadium deal that raised the sales tax in the Milwaukee area.
The Senate Democrats’ tactic didn’t win over Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), a moderate whom unions had been trying to convince to vote against the bill. Cowles called the blockage of the Senate vote an attempt to “shut down democracy.”
Lack of quorum
The Senate convened at 11:30 a.m., 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.” One of the two missing Republicans arrived shortly afterward and an aide to the nineteenth, Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), said his boss was unable to make it to the Senate through the demonstrators.
Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) made a call of the house to bring the additional senators needed to vote on the bill to the Senate floor.
Walker and Scott Fitzgerald have said they were confident that the GOP lawmakers had the votes they needed to pass the bill without further changes. Walker said Thursday that the proposal’s cuts to worker benefits and union bargaining laws are financially necessary and that he wouldn’t accept changes that compromised the savings he’s seeking.
The state has a $137 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30 and a more than $3 billion shortfall over the next two years. The cuts to benefits would save taxpayers nearly $330 million through mid-2013.
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.
Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) said he was uncomfortable about the bill’s effects on workers but also concerned about the other alternatives to fix the budget.
“I will probably vote for it” on the Senate floor, Olsen said.
Top GOP leaders in the Legislature have said they expect the bill to pass both houses with the changes adopted by the Joint Finance Committee late Wednesday on a party-line vote. Some GOP senators attempted to make changes to the bill Wednesday that would go further than the Joint Finance Committee changes but had no success.
The biggest change approved by the Joint Finance Committee would require local governments that don’t have a civil-service system to create one that would have to address grievances for employee termination, employee discipline and workplace safety.
The committee left major elements of the bill in place. It would require most public workers to pay half their pension costs – typically 5.8% of pay for state workers – and at least 12% 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.
Don Walker and Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.