Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wisconsin lawmakers curb public worker bargaining power


MADISON, Wis.—Wisconsin lawmakers sent a bill eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for the state's public-employee unions to Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday, setting a precedent other states could follow in the broadest move in decades to curb union rights.

The bill's passage by the state's Republican-controlled Assembly in a 53-42 vote ended a three-week stalemate that saw the state's 14 Senate Democrats flee to Illinois in a bid to stymie the measure and tens of thousands of people protest at the Capitol.

Mr. Walker, a Republican, said he would sign the bill as soon as he legally could, but controversy continued to swirl. Democratic senators were challenging the legality of a committee meeting that cleared the way for Wednesday night's Senate passage, saying it violated the state's open-meetings laws. Unions were planning large rallies and supporting campaigns to recall eight Republican senators across the state. Six Democrats are also targeted for recall.

Conflicts over union rights continued to play out in other states. An estimated 8,000 union supporters rallied in Indianapolis on Thursday to oppose Republican-backed measures that would limit union rights in the state. In Ohio, the GOP-controlled House is expected to pass a bill curbing rights for 400,000 unionized public workers.

Mr. Walker applauded the vote by the Assembly. "Their action will save jobs, protect taxpayers, reform government and help balance the budget," he said. "Moving forward, we will continue to focus on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."

Mr. Walker's "budget repair" bill was introduced nearly a month ago to address a $137 million shortfall in the current budget, and help close a $3.6 billion projected gap over the next two years.

Democrats objected to eliminating unions' bargaining rights and the way the bill passed.

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"Republicans have made a mockery of democracy," said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca. He said the bill's passage in the Senate violated the state's open-meetings law, because he was given less than the two hours required by law for any government meeting before a gathering to amend the bill Wednesday night. Mr. Barca filed a complaint with the district attorney of Dane County, where Madison is located, asking him to investigate whether the law was violated.

"We ran on this. We will get the fiscal house in order," said Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald during the tense Assembly session before the vote. "I know you feel passionate that this is going to ruin Wisconsin…that's simply not true."

Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Mr. Walker, said passage of the bill meant that the state wouldn't have to lay off public employees.

The bill would take away the ability of unions to bargain over pensions and health care. It would limit pay raises, which can still be negotiated by unions, to inflation. It eliminates automatic collection of dues by the state and requires each public union in the state to get recertified every year by vote.

The bill also requires public-employee union members to contribute 5.8% of their pay to pensions and to pay 12.6% of health-care premiums out of their wages, up from 6% on average.

Two items taken out of the amended bill involved the sale of power plants and legislative oversight of Medicaid assistance, which many Republicans and Democrats opposed. Police and firefighters' unions are exempted.

Outside the Capitol, hundreds of people banged on drums, rang bells and chanted as car horns blared, while inside dozens gathered in the middle of the rotunda, shouting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker has got to go."

Elden Jelle, 57 years old, a custodial worker at the University of Wisconsin, wore a green shirt with the logo of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Mr. Jelle, who earns about $15.51 an hour, estimated that his take-home pay would drop by about $300 to $400 a month. "Where are we going to make up the money?" he said.

Meanwhile, it was unclear how soon the 14 Senate Democrats who left for Illinois on Feb. 17 to boycott the bill would return to Wisconsin.

Pandemonium in Wisc as protesters storm Capitol over union vote...

By Jason Stein, Lee Bergquist and Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel

Madison - After police carried demonstrators out of the state Assembly Thursday, Republicans entered the chamber and approved Gov. Scott Walker's bill repealing most collective bargaining by public employee unions.

The body voted 53-42 in favor of the budget-repair proposal, sending the bill to the Republican governor after an epic month of struggle unlike anything in living memory in Wisconsin politics. But even with the battle won by Republicans, a wider war remains for both sides. It will likely be fought in the courts and through recall efforts against 14 senators.

All Democrats voted against the bill and were joined by four Republicans - Dean Kaufert of Neenah, Lee Nerison of Westby, Travis Tranel of Cuba City and Richard Spanbauer of Oshkosh. All other Republicans and the body's lone independent, Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc, voted for the bill.

In a statement, Walker hailed the vote.

"I applaud all members of the Assembly for showing up, debating the legislation and participating in democracy," he said. "Their action will save jobs, protect taxpayers, reform government, and help balance the budget. Moving forward we will continue to focus on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said that the governor would sign the bill "as soon as possible" but not on Thursday.

After Republicans in the Assembly cut off debate a little more than three hours after it started, Democrats jumped up to protest the vote on the bill repealing decades-old labor provisions. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) brought a megaphone out from under his desk and through it yelled, "Mr. Speaker, I demand to be recognized."

He was ignored.

The crowd erupted with the now familiar chants of "Shame! Shame!" as Republicans filed out of the chamber.

Just before the session, the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a prayer and asked for unity between Republicans and Democrats - a brief bipartisan respite in a day of boiling debate and thundering demonstrations.

But the moment was quickly over. In the tense atmosphere at the Capitol Thursday, Republican senators said they had received death threats for supporting the legislation.

Democrats and the public said they were closed out of the statehouse for a time in the morning before the Assembly met, with Rep. David Cullen (D-Milwaukee) saying he was forced to climb through a ground-floor window to get into the building. A small group of State Patrol officers were equipped in riot gear Thursday but never called into action.

Outside the Assembly chamber, hundreds of demonstrators were in the hallways and in the rotunda, their eyes and voices aimed at the debate within. Meanwhile, inside the chamber, the public galleries above the lawmakers were full.

Early in the session, Barca (D-Kenosha) called for the removal of Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon). Nearby in Madison Thursday morning, lawyers for Barca filed a complaint with the Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne alleging Fitzgerald and a legislative committee violated the state's open meetings law Wednesday when it passed the measure. Republicans deny that claim.

"Your speaker is impaired," Barca yelled on the Assembly floor as the protesters could be heard chanting outside the chamber. "Our democracy is out of control in Wisconsin . . .  You all know it, you all feel it."

But Jeff Fitzgerald said that the vote needed to be taken and that there had been adequate debate - the Assembly debated a previous version of the bill for 61 hours before passing it on Feb. 25. Fitzgerald said the bill was a "tough vote" for Republicans and a political "gamble" but was needed to balance the state budget and end an intolerable financial situation for the state.

"You know what? We feel it's the right thing to do to get this state back on the right track," Fitzgerald said.

The Assembly voted, 57-37, to deny Barca's request to strip Fitzgerald of his post. Republicans said the move was a delay tactic to slow passage of the bill.

At a news conference Thursday in West Allis, Walker said the bill will help state and local governments and schools avoid massive layoffs and increases in property taxes. The governor has proposed cutting roughly $1 billion in aid to schools and local governments over the next two years to help resolve a $3.5 billion deficit in the 2011-'13 state budget.

Other states also are also making deep cuts but have not passed tools that will help local governments, like Wisconsin is doing, Walker said.

Under the measure passed Thursday by the Assembly, most school, local and state employees would have to pay half the cost of their pensions - 5.8% of pay for typical state employees - and at least 12% of the cost of their health care premiums. Wages could not be raised by more than inflation each year, unless approved by voters in a referendum.

The proposal would help the state erase $37.5 million of a $137 million shortfall in the fiscal year that runs through June 30, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The remaining $99.5 million deficit would have to be addressed with a separate piece of legislation. Lawmakers hope to do that by restructuring a $165 million bond payment, which they say they would need to do by early April.

At the Capitol Thursday, demonstrators were dragged and escorted out of the Assembly by police after they said they were willing to risk arrest to block a vote. The Walker administration, which had not opened to the building at 8 a.m., then opened the statehouse to the public.

Taylor Tengwall, 21, of Duluth, Minn., said, "They grabbed me by the shoulders and took me out."

Walker's Department of Administration said in a statement that the decision to delay the opening of the statehouse was "due to the events the previous night when thousands of people entered the building after the Capitol was to have been closed for the evening and more than 200 people remained overnight."

For a time Thursday morning, the Capitol was closed to members of the media who were outside the building and the Assembly was closed off to some members of the media who were inside the building. The delay opening the building angered protesters outside who began banging on doors and windows, demanding to be let in.

On Wednesday evening with the 14 Senate Democrats still in Illinois, the Senate abruptly voted to pass the budget repair bill. The bill passed the Senate 18-1, with Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) voting no.

In West Allis, Walker said the action by the Senate Wednesday night was legal, contrary to claims by opponents, including some of the 14 Democratic senators who fled to Illinois in an effort to keep Walker's budget-repair bill from being approved.

From Feb. 17 until Wednesday, the Senate Democrats were able to block a vote on the original version of the bill because the state constitution requires 20 senators to be present for bills that authorize spending money. Republicans control the house 19-14.

Walker said appropriation measures were removed from the bill and that allowed the Senate to approve it. Although the bill contains requirements that employees pay half the cost of their pensions and pay toward health care premiums, Walker said those fiscal items did not require that 20 senators vote.

Once Republicans determined it was legal for a vote on a bill containing those measures, Walker said they decided to proceed with it. Walker said the pension and health care measures had to be included because they are the tools school districts and local governments need to avoid layoffs and hikes in property taxes.

They will create $1.5 billion in savings for local government and schools over two years, Walker said. Democrats have questioned savings estimates for state and local governments.

Asked whether Republicans had pulled a dirty trick by stripping the bill of appropriation items and then approving it, Walker said the dirty trick is what the 14 missing senators have done in the last several weeks.

"You can't mail in your vote," he said of the absent senators.

He told voters in those Senate districts to ask why those senators are not in Wisconsin. Those voters also should ask who is calling the shots. Walker suggested it was Miller, Miller's staff or "union leaders from Washington, D.C." instructing the missing 14 on what to do.

Some of the Democrats who have been boycotting the Senate for three weeks said they would return to Wisconsin once the bill passes the Assembly. But they had not crafted their exact plans for return, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) issued a statement saying they would not return on Thursday after earlier indicating they might.

Republicans devised a plan to get around the impasse and hurriedly approved the bill late in the day after meeting for hours behind closed doors. Walker met with them for more than half an hour at the start of the private meeting.

Just before the Senate vote, a committee stripped some financial elements from the bill, which they said allowed them to pass it with the presence of a simple majority. The most controversial parts of the bill remain intact.

That committee, formed just two hours earlier, quickly approved the bill as the lone Democrat at the meeting screamed that Republicans were violating the state's open meetings law - a claim Republicans disputed.

"This is a violation of law!" Barca bellowed.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) ignored him and ordered the roll to be taken.

Minutes later, the Senate took up the bill and passed it without debate.

Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) decried the move as "political thuggery." He and other Democrats warned it could end the political careers of some Republican senators who are under the threat of recalls.

"I think it's akin to political hara-kiri," said Jauch. "I think it's political suicide."

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said Wednesday night that he attempted to drive back from Illinois to Madison to get to the Capitol before Republicans passed the measure.

"If they decide to kill the middle class, it's on them," he said.