Thursday, February 17, 2011

In Wisconsin Fight, Officials Search Capitol for Democrats

Market Watch
By Kris Maher And Douglas Belkin 

Wisconsin state officials began searching for 14 missing state senate Democrats who failed to show up at a floor session at the capitol in protest of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget bill, which continued to draw massive protests from public-employee union members on Thursday.

The state senate's sergeant at arms searched the Democrats' offices in the capitol building as a first step in locating them, according to a staff member of Republican senate leader Scott Fitzgerald. The staff member said that because of all the union protesters crowding into the capitol, the search of offices was slower than it would have been normally.

The Democrats' action has halted a vote on the bill, which would strip state's public employees of most collective-bargaining rights, because the senate lacks a quorum needed to pass a fiscal bill under state law. Twenty members of the 33-member house need to be present, so the body's 19 Republicans will not be enough to pass the budget-repair bill without at least one Democrat present.

The state assembly has 60 Republicans and 38 Democrats, but it is unclear whether any Democratic lawmakers from that body have left the capitol.

The bill has sparked three days of massive protests by public-sector unions around the state capitol, as well as the closure of public schools in Madison as hundreds of teachers called in sick. On Wednesday President Barack Obama weighed in on the dispute, calling the bill "an assault" on unions.

It's not clear what immediate steps Republican lawmakers or other state officials would take in the absence of Democrats from the capitol. Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Mr. Walker, said "We remain confident that the legislation will pass. I think it will happen today."

Last night, at about midnight, the state's joint finance committee passed the bill, which set it up for a vote today by a session of the joint assembly. Mr. Fitzgerald said that Wisconsin is leading the country "in bringing the public sector back in line with the private sector." He added, "There are no easy solutions to the problems our state is facing."  

Thousands of union members and supporters have jammed the capitol grounds and the building itself for the last several days as a powerful legislative committee began hearings this week on a proposal introduced just a week ago by Mr. Walker.

The plan, which Mr. Walker calls a "budget repair" bill, would take away most bargaining rights for about 170,000 public-sector workers. It would limit collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to issues of wages, and exclude pensions and health care. It would also require government workers, who currently contribute little or nothing to their pensions, to contribute 5.8% of their pay to pensions, and pay at least 12.6% of health-care premiums, up from an average of 6%.
Mr. Walker said in an interview Tuesday that eliminating most bargaining rights would give local governments more flexibility to maintain jobs and services while finding ways to cut spending.
"We're giving these people the tools to balance budgets without laying people off," he said.
He said 5,500 state jobs and 5,000 local jobs would be saved under his plan, which would save $30 million in the current budget and $300 million in the two-year budget that begins July 1. Wisconsin faces a $137 million shortfall in the current budget that ends June 30 and a $3.6 billion gap in the coming two-year cycle.

Some union officials said organized labor needs to make the strongest stand possible in Wisconsin, if it hopes to fight off similar attempts to rein in collective-bargaining rights in other states for both public- and private-sector workers, moves that could eventually erode union membership, finances and political clout at a national level.

"This is a big deal," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's biggest union with 3.2 million members. "Plain and simple, this is a politically motivated attack."

He framed the Wisconsin fight as being part of a broader debate about workers rights. "This is an important point where we think about what we want as a nation, and do we want to bring people together to solve tough problems. It's not about silencing people that you don't agree with," he said.
Mr. Van Roekel's union, which is also the biggest in Wisconsin with 98,000 members, has used Facebook and email to communicate with members all week. It asked teachers not to report to work on Thursday and Friday and go to Madison to join in protests, which prompted more schools to close on Thursday around the state. He said of Mr. Walker's bill, "It's galvanized our membership. They're on fire."

Separately, in Ohio, more than 5,000 teachers, fire fighters and other union members, many wearing red T-shirts, showed up at the capitol in Columbus to protest a bill that Republican Gov. John Kasich has proposed that would eliminate collective-bargaining rights for many of the state's 400,000 public sector workers.

Unions in Ohio say they delivered tens of thousands of emails, post cards and phone message to the state's lawmakers, opposing the bill.

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