Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wisconsin Republicans bypass Democrats on Union Bill

The New York Times

CHICAGO — The bitter political standoff in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to sharply curtail collective bargaining for public-sector workers ended abruptly Wednesday night as Republican colleagues in the State Senate successfully maneuvered to adopt a bill doing just that.

After a three-week stalemate, Republican senators pushed the measure through in less than half an hour even as the Senate’s Democrats remained many miles away, trying to block the vote. Democrats in the State Assembly complained bitterly, and protesters, who had spent many days at the Capitol, continued their chants and jeers.

The Republicans control the Senate but had been blocked from voting on the issue after Senate Democrats left the state last month to prevent a quorum. Instead, the Republicans used a procedural maneuver Wednesday to force the collective bargaining measure through: they removed elements of Governor Walker’s bill that were technically related to appropriating funds, thus lifting a requirement that 20 senators be present for a vote. In the end, the Senate’s 19 Republicans approved the measure, 18 to 1, without any debate on the floor or a single Democrat in the room.

The remaining bill, which increases health care and pension costs and cuts collective bargaining rights for public workers in the state, still needs approval from the State Assembly on Thursday morning, but that chamber approved the measure once before, and many in Wisconsin’s Capitol now consider approval a foregone conclusion.

Mr. Walker, a Republican whose efforts to diminish collective bargaining rights have placed him firmly in the national spotlight during his less than three months in office, applauded the Senate’s move on Wednesday night, and said it brought the state a step closer to balancing its budget. “The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs,” Mr. Walker said, in a statement released minutes after the unexpected vote.

Democrats, meanwhile, condemned the move as an attack on working families, a violation of open meetings requirements (most of them did not know there was to be a vote until not long before), and a virtual firebomb in state that already found itself politically polarized and consumed with recall efforts, large scale protests, and fury from public workers.

“In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin,” said Mark Miller, the leader of the Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois on Feb. 17 to block just such a vote from occurring. “Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.”

The 14 Democrats — many of whom watched a livestream of the vote on the Web from their undisclosed locations in Illinois — said that they did not intend to return to Wisconsin on Thursday; some said that they suspected the Republicans might yet have additional voting maneuvers planned, and that they needed to assess all that had occurred.

“Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people,” Mr. Miller said. “Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.”

The Democrats complained angrily that the manner of the move directly contradicted what the Republicans had contended all along: that collective bargaining rights had to be cut not for philosophical reasons but merely for financial ones, to fix the state’s budget gap.

“To pass this the way they did — without 20 senators — is to say that it has no fiscal effect,” said Timothy Cullen, another of the Democratic senators. “It’s admitting that this is simply to destroy public unions.”

The bill makes significant changes to most public-sector unions, limiting collective bargaining to matters of wages and limiting raises to the Consumer Price Index unless the public approves higher raises in a referendum. It requires most unions to hold votes annually to determine whether most workers still wish to be members. And it ends the state’s collection of union dues from paychecks.

Wisconsin’s battle has been the leading edge of a wider fight over public workers and collective bargaining across the country. Similar, if somewhat less dramatic, fights have played out in statehouses in places like Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana and more are expected.

In Wisconsin, Republicans and Democrats had been at an impasse over Mr. Walker’s bill for weeks. Because the bill was initially deemed a fiscal bill, it required 20 members — and, thus, at least one of the Democrats’ 14 members — to be in the room.

On both sides, as the Democrats camped out in Illinois, there had been negotiations, angry news conferences, breakdowns in negotiations, and talk of more negotiations. Senate Republicans had voted to fine each of the missing Democrats $100 a day. The Senate Democrats had talked almost every day, sometimes disagreeing over whether it was time to give up and go home or to continue demanding that the Republicans lessen the cuts to collective bargaining rights.

As the impasse has dragged on, senators from both parties have found themselves the focus of recall efforts — efforts that all involved now said were certain to grow still more intense. Late Wednesday, Mike Tate, the leader of the state’s Democratic Party, pledged to put “total focus” on “recalling the eligible Republican senators who voted for this heinous bill,” adding, “and we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall."

Even as recently as Sunday evening, a possible deal seemed in sight. In private e-mail exchanges with the Democrats, Mr. Walker’s representatives appeared willing to agree to some limited changes.

But by Wednesday afternoon, after talks had clearly broken apart, Republican senators met privately for hours, and eventually called a conference committee meeting of the leaders in the Senate and Assembly for 6 p.m. Central time. Peter Barca, a Democratic leader in the Assembly, protested vehemently as Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate Republicans’ leader, called the meeting to order, announced that a new bill — without specific mentions of appropriations — was being considered, and called for a vote.

“This is a violation of open meetings laws!” Mr. Barca cried out repeatedly, demanding to hear a summary of the bill and what had changed.

Mr. Fitzgerald swiftly moved to the Senate chamber, calling his Republican to order, and calling for another vote in a matter of minutes.

“Enough is enough,” Mr. Fitzgerald said, in a statement he issued minutes later. “The people of Wisconsin elected us to do a job. They elected us to stand up to the broken status quo, stop the constant expansion of government, balance the budget, create jobs and improve the economy. The longer the Democrats keep up this childish stunt, the longer the majority can’t act on our agenda.”

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