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Fight over Wisconsin unions heats up

Democrats who fled the state to block a vote cutting public employee union rights remain united. To increase pressure, Republicans plan votes on hot-button measures that require a smaller quorum.

February 22, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times
  • Bagpipe-playing firefighters, whose union would not be affected, join the protest in Madison, Wisc., agains the governor's plan to elminate collective-bargaining rights for most public-employee unions.
Bagpipe-playing firefighters, whose union would not be affected, join… (Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal…)

Reporting from Denver and Chicago — Wisconsin Republicans on Monday turned up the heat on Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois last week to block passage of a controversial bill that would eliminate collective bargaining for most public employee unions.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker warned that if his proposal is not passed by Friday, the state could miss a chance to refinance bonds and save more than $100 million. To make up the gap, Walker said at an afternoon press conference, 1,500 state workers would have to be laid off.

"For those 14 Senate Democrats, you've had your time," Walker said. "Now it's time to come home."

The Democrats, meanwhile, held firm, saying they would not return until Walker drops his attempt to essentially dissolve most public-sector unions.

"After four days, we're still very united," said Democratic state Sen. Fred Risser. "I think more united than when we started."

The Senate needs a quorum of at least 20 members to decide spending issues, including the budget bill that the Democrats are opposing. That means the 19 Republicans in the Senate need one Democrat to return home before they can act.

Other measures need only a majority of the chamber's 33 members, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in an interview that he would convene the body Tuesday to handle those matters.

The Senate will start small, with a ceremonial motion honoring the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and a tax cut for agricultural concerns. But to pressure Democrats into returning, Republicans are also considering more controversial bills, such as a requirement that voters show identification at the polls.

"We're going back to work," Fitzgerald said. "I'm still hopeful that one of the Democrats will break with the rest of their caucus."

The state Assembly, which is also controlled by Republicans, will convene Tuesday and is expected to eventually pass the governor's budget bill.

Demonstrations over Walker's budget bill peaked with nearly 70,000 marching on the state capitol Saturday, including a small number of supporters of the austerity measure.

On Monday, thousands still milled about the Capitol. Madison schools were shut down for several days last week because so many teachers came to the protests, but they are expected to open again Tuesday.

Walker is one of at least three newly elected GOP governors proposing not only deep cuts in benefits for unionized state workers, but also measures to significantly weaken the unions. He has said it is necessary to deal with a projected $3.6-billion deficit over the next two years.

That sum is relatively modest compared to the damage the recession has inflicted on other state budgets, and analysts say Wisconsin's pension is on fairly firm footing as well.

The unions have agreed to Walker's cuts — paying 12% of their health benefits and half their pension costs — but object to the elimination of collective bargaining, contending that Walker is using the state's budget woes as an excuse to get rid of one of the Democratic party's biggest supporters, public-sector unions.

But Republicans say the unions need to lose their negotiating power to allow local governments to save money. If the local governments are "held to the same standards on collective bargaining, they're not going to survive," Fitzgerald said.

Democrats dramatically fled the state Thursday, surfacing briefly at a conference center and water park in western Illinois, then scattering. Some senators left with little more than the clothes on their backs. Others came to Illinois equipped with clothes, toiletries and smart phones — Facebook- and Twitter-ready.

Since then, the senators have gone into survival mode in Illinois, doing small loads of laundry and eating "whatever we can get our hands on," said one senator.

Whatever they don't have, they buy — nothing on the state's dime, they insist — or they get from relatives and staff who trek across the border.

"Each day brings its own challenges," Sen. Spencer Coggs said by telephone. "Somebody will need an electric shaver or somebody will need provisions."

Coggs has had to purchase more underwear, socks and T-shirts. His wife brought him more clothes over the weekend. Sen. Julie Lassa needed more contact lens solution.

"It's just roughing it, like staying in a college dorm all over again," Coggs said. "It's sort of like being a refugee."

The Democrats insist that Walker alone has the ability to get Wisconsin's government working again. "It's right in front of the governor," Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller told the Associated Press. "He just needs to pick it up and allow us to move on…. This is a no-brainer."

But there are no signs of movement anywhere in the standoff. The Democratic senators have become a cause célèbre in left-wing circles, and President Obama has backed the unions in the fight. Meanwhile, prominent Republicans have lined up behind Walker.

Fitzgerald, the Republican Senate majority leader, said that his caucus has only become more unified since the protests began. He predicted that Democrats will eventually return.

"I think what they're feeling is they made this move, they boxed themselves in and they don't hold many cards," he said.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

cdrhodes@tribune.com

Chicago Tribune reporters Hailey Branson-Potts and Erin Meyer contributed to this report.

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