Wisconsin Republicans Threatened with Recalls
March 12, 2011After using a loophole in parliamentary procedure to pass its controversial bill, GOP legislators in Wisconsin are on the defensive.
BY ALYSSA CARTEE
ANCHOR: MEGAN MURPHY
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Wisconsin lawmakers could face recall elections after Governor Scott Walker signed a bill into law that strips unions of some of their collective bargaining rights.
Republicans amended the bill to remove non-spending issues, effectively bypassing Democrats -- who remained out of the state in protest of the bill. (Video: CNN)
And the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is moving fast to mobilize public opinion against the state’s Republicans.
“We expect pins to get bowled over, pies to get rolled, but we certainly don’t expect our senators to get flattened. Last month, Sen. Olsen said eliminating collective bargaining is, quote, ‘pretty radical.’ But Olsen voted for Gov. Walker’s backroom deal to end collective bargaining.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow points to a SurveyUSA poll -- which suggests some Wisconsin Republicans are already facing backlash from their constituents.
“In the district of Republican Senator Randy Hopper 54% of his District would please rather have somebody else represent them now. He's up for recall. That's not 54% of Democrats in the district. That's voters in the whole district. That's not Democrats. That's voters. Those who elected them a couple of months ago.”
But it isn’t just Republicans in the crosshairs. In Wisconsin - an elected official can’t go up for recall until he or she has been in office at least a year. 16 lawmakers are eligible - and Republicans are launching their own recall campaign against as many as eight Democrats.
Protesters Flood Wis. Capitol Over Anti-Union VoteMarch 10, 2011
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Thousands of protesters pushed past security, climbed through windows and flooded the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday night after Senate Republicans pushed through a plan to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Within an hour and a half of the vote, the protesters had seized the building’s lower floors, creating an ear-splitting free-for-all of pounding drums, screaming chants, horns and whistles. Police gave up guarding the building entrances and retreated to the third floor.
The state Department of Administration, which operates the building, estimated the crowd at about 7,000 people. There were no reports of violence as of late Wednesday evening. DOA spokesman Tim Donovan said no one had been arrested as of late Wednesday evening. By midnight dozens of protesters had bedded down in the building’s corridors and alcoves. Some slept in front of the office of Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon.
Donovan said officials decided not to try to clear the building because they want to avoid confrontation.
“The more talking we can do, the less this devolves into something unpleasant,” he said.
The bill would require public sector workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care, in what would amount to an 8 percent pay cut for the workers, on average. It also would prohibit most of them from collectively bargaining for their working conditions.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the plan’s chief author, says the bill will help fill the state’s current $137 million shortfall and a $3.6 billion hole in the state’s upcoming two-year budget. He said limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers will give local governments more flexibility to handle deep cuts in state aid.
Democrats and unions say the attack on collective bargaining is purely political, and that Republicans are simply trying to financially cripple the labor movement, a pillar of Democratic Party strength.
The Capitol has been a flashpoint for demonstrations since the bill was introduced about three weeks ago. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the plan’s chief author, has said the bill is needed to help fill the state’s $137 million Senate Democrats were so outraged at the proposal they fled the state to block a vote in that chamber. They haven’t been seen in Madison for weeks.
Tens of thousands of people spent days jamming the area around the building, setting up a makeshift village inside complete with a day care center and signs plastered on the walls. Hundreds slept overnight on the floor for about two weeks.
Police imposed tighter access restrictions last week, closing down entrances. They persuaded the last overnighters to leave on the evening of March 3. The protests had been confined to the ground floor and the lawns until Wednesday evening, when frustrated Senate Republicans used a procedural maneuver to pass the bill without the minority Democrats.
As word spread that the vote was coming, hundreds of protesters moved into the building before its official 6 p.m. closing time and jammed the corridors in front of the Senate chamber, chanting “shame.”
Protester Damon Terrell, 19, called Senate vote a “despicable travesty.”
“They know what they’re doing is wrong,” he said. “Which child hides what they were doing: the one doing their homework or the one that was messing around?”
Police held their positions at the Capitol for a time after the vote, but more and more protesters found a way in. Police believe some climbed through windows, Donovan said. He initially said protesters broke windows and door handles, but later backed off that statement, saying he wasn’t sure that was true.
Finally police commanders decided to pull officers off guard duty at all the ground floor entrances, he said.
“The efforts to secure them weren’t working,” Donovan said. “It would be safer for everybody (if officers withdrew).”
Police addressed protesters repeatedly over the building’s public address system, warning them the building had been closed for hours and they had no right to remain inside. No one could hear the warnings over the din as protesters banged buckets, blew whistles and shouted “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Who’s house? Our house!”
The state Assembly was scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday morning, the last step before it would go to Walker for his signature.
A group of about 150 protesters jammed the Assembly foyer on Wednesday evening, debating whether they should occupy the space indefinitely. They had written the phone number for the American Civil Liberties Union’s local chapter on their arms, ensuring they could call a lawyer if they were arrested.
Later in the evening police again came over the building’s loudspeakers, this time warning people to get off the second-floor skywalks that link the building’s wings because they could collapse. No one listened.
Donovan said police had about an hour’s notice that the Senate was preparing to vote. Commanders tried to put together a reaction plan, but “it turned out to be not enough,” Donovan said.
Asked about the police’s plan, Donovan said officers just hoped to make sure no one got hurt. He didn’t know how many police were still on the scene late Wednesday but said more were on their way.
“The priority is to keep everybody safe,” Donovan said. “We’ll figure out what went wrong another day.”
State Capitol has been reoccupied
Mar 9, 2011
Wis. GOP bypasses Dems, cuts collective bargaining
By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The Wisconsin Senate succeeded in voting Wednesday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers, after Republicans discovered a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats and approve an explosive proposal that has rocked the state and unions nationwide.
"You are cowards!" spectators in the Senate gallery screamed as lawmakers voted. Within hours, a crowd of a few hundred protesters inside the Capitol had grown to several thousand, more than had been in the building at any point during weeks of protests.
"The whole world is watching!" they shouted as they pressed up against the heavily guarded entrance to the Senate chamber.
All 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's "budget-repair bill" - a proposal introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spends money. But Republicans on Wednesday took all the spending measures out of the legislation and a special committee of lawmakers from both the Senate and Assembly approved the revised bill a short time later.
The unexpected yet surprisingly simple procedural move ended a stalemate that had threatened to drag on indefinitely. Until Wednesday's stunning vote, it appeared the standoff would persist until Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. "Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people."
The state Assembly previously approved the original proposal and was set to consider the new measure on Thursday. Miller said in an interview with The Associated Press there is nothing Democrats can do now to stop the bill: "It's a done deal."
The lone Democrat present on the special committee, Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, shouted that the meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law. The Senate's chief clerk said hours later the meeting was properly held.
Senate convened within minutes of the committee meeting and passed the measure 18-1 without discussion or debate. Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the lone no vote.
"The jig is now up," Barca said. "The fraud on the people of Wisconsin is now clear."
Walker had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining was a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said that without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
Walker said Wednesday night that Democrats had three weeks to debate the bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come back, but refused.
"I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government," Walker said in the statement.
The measure approved Wednesday forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
Walker's proposal touched off a national debate over union rights for public employees and prompted tens of thousands of demonstrators to converge on Wisconsin's capital city for weeks of protests.
Wednesday's drama unfolded less than four hours after Walker met with GOP senators in a closed-door meeting. He emerged from the meeting saying senators were "firm" in their support of the bill.
For weeks, Democrats had offered concessions on issues other than the bargaining rights and they spent much of Wednesday again calling on Walker and Republicans to compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said earlier that Republicans had been discussing concessions offered by Walker, including allowing public workers to bargain over their salaries without a wage limit. Several GOP senators facing recall efforts had also publicly called for a compromise.
"The people of Wisconsin elected us to come to Madison and do a job," Fitzgerald said in a statement after the vote. "Just because the Senate Democrats won't do theirs, doesn't mean we won't do ours."
Union leaders weren't happy with Walker's offer, and were furious at the Senate's move to push the measure forward with a quick vote. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said after Wednesday's vote that Republicans exercised a "nuclear option."
"Scott Walker and the Republicans' ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable," Neuenfeldt said.
While talks had been going on sporadically behind the scenes, Republicans in the Senate also had publicly tried to ratchet up pressure on Democrats to return. They had agreed earlier Wednesday to start fining Democrats $100 for each day legislative session day they miss.
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Jason Smathers contributed to this report.
Budget Battle: Day 18
Walker notifies unions of layoffs, but gives Democrats 15 days to reverse moveBy Patrick Marley and Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel
Madison — Gov. Scott Walker notified unions Friday of impending layoffs if a budget-repair bill isn't passed in the next 15 days, even as both Republicans and Democrats showed signs of moving from their entrenched positions as they try to break a stalemate that has lasted nearly three weeks.
Walker warned Thursday that he would issue the notices on Friday that would affect up to 1,500 state employees. The actual notices, however, did not spell out how many people could be laid off, and a spokesman for the governor said the layoffs could be reduced by employee retirements.
According to GOP sources familiar with talks on the bill, the discussions with Democratic senators holed up in Illinois include removing or changing a provision from Walker's budget-repair bill that would limit unions' bargaining over wages to the rate of inflation. The talks have also touched on the possibility of removing or changing a provision that would require workers to vote every year on whether their union would remain active or be decertified, the sources said.
The last provision especially is anathema to Democrats and unions, who say it could kill many labor groups. The sources asked not to be identified because they had no clearance to speak and because the talks were still delicate.
The Republican governor acknowledged Thursday that his administration was in talks with Democrats but declined to provide details. He also signaled for the first time in the budget crisis that he might be willing to make at least a marginal change to his budget-repair proposal.
The bill has been stalled since Feb. 17, when all 14 Senate Democrats left the state. Twenty senators must be present to pass spending bills, and Republicans have only 19 seats.
The budget-repair bill would require most public workers to pay more for their health care and pensions, eliminate most collective bargaining by their unions, and give the governor broad powers to reshape the state's health care programs for the poor and elderly.
Unions have agreed to the concessions on their benefits, but the provisions taking away most collective bargaining have prompted sustained protests for over two weeks.
In a sign of the political stakes for the governor, a poll released Friday found a solid majority of likely voters in Wisconsin disapprove of Walker's job performance.
Changes discussedIn the Thursday interview, Walker said he remained firm on the core of his proposal but also acknowledged the provision forcing workers to vote every year on their unions' status wouldn't save local governments money.
"I'm not saying what's on the table (in the talks), but, no, I don't think that's an issue that if someone were to look objectively and say, 'Does that hurt local governments if that were altered in some way?' (That) observation is prudent," Walker said.
The governor said he didn't want to give details on the talks out of fear that doing so could disrupt them.
Walker's layoff notifications went to unions, and notifications to individual workers could come in 15 days. The actual layoffs would occur in early April.
Democrats have said layoffs are unnecessary and have shown no signs that the layoff threat is moving them.
Walker's announcement also appears to give Democrats more time to reach a deal than the GOP governor has indicated in the past. He had insisted his budget-repair bill needed to pass this past week in order to avoid layoffs. But a news release from Walker Friday said layoffs might be avoided if the bill passes in the next 15 days.
One labor leader said Walker was bluffing.
Experts marvel at events but can't predict outcome
Two weeks old and counting, Wisconsin's scorched-earth budget battle has become a consuming national spectacle and defining political moment, an episode with few parallels in the legislative annals of this or any state.
"It's really a confluence of a series of extraordinary events," said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri professor who studies legislative politics. "This has all been full of terrific story angles nobody could have anticipated."
Even the most experienced political players are having trouble seeing an endgame.
"Everybody's playing chicken," said Madison pollster Paul Maslin, a Democrat. "I'm pretty close to saying this is maybe a no-win for everybody."
What started as one state's budget dispute has become a much bigger melodrama, test case and proxy war, spawning fundraising and advertising campaigns, mobilizing labor and the left on a national scale and transforming a longtime but low-profile conservative cause (reducing the power of public employee unions) into a hot-button issue that could influence the 2012 Republican nominating fight and shape the future of organized labor.
"This is a battle that Republicans and tea party types, conservatives, have been waiting for frankly for some time," said Steve King, a member of the national GOP's executive committee from Wisconsin. "And Scott Walker . . . he chose to go first."
It's a conflict that said a lot about its time and place.
A collision between conservatives and public-sector unions could only play out this way in a strong union state that just elected a Republican governor.
Only a conservative politician emboldened by a tea party movement inflamed by government spending would pin his career on a battle he initiated with the other party's most organized constituency.
Perhaps only in a state capital and university town as liberal as Madison in a state with Wisconsin's history of political and union activism would a fight like this draw protest crowds bigger than those of the Vietnam War.
Only in an age of new media, social media, 24/7 media and flourishing right-wing and left-wing media would protests materialize with such speed, would the fight go national so quickly, would obscure state legislators and activists become temporary talking heads on cable television, and would a blogger from Buffalo spend 20 minutes on the phone "punking" the governor of Wisconsin.
Only at a moment of extreme partisan polarization would a fight this divisive be undertaken, inspire such bitter reactions and extreme tactics and be so destructive to the legislative culture and process.
And only on the eve of a presidential campaign would doing battle with unions become an important new conservative credential for nationally ambitious GOP politicians.
"Whether you're running for mayor, governor or president, (Republican) voters are going to want to see that the people they're electing are going to have the fortitude to take the hits, to take the protests and make the tough decisions like Gov. Walker is doing," said Alex Conant, a GOP operative now working for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential candidate who released a pro-Walker video and launched a pro-Walker petition drive this week.
Touching a nerveTwo weeks in, people on both sides express amazement at the twists and turns and speed and scale of the struggle that has unfolded here.
"The Packers won the Super Bowl, and they didn't get this much ink," said union leader Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
King, the GOP committeeman, argues that people should not have been surprised by Walker's decision to go after collective bargaining rights, even if it wasn't something he explicitly campaigned on.
"For Republicans, conservatives, this was I think somewhat of a much anticipated event," said King, noting that the power of public employee unions has been a well-known conservative concern and Republican frustration. If there's an element of political hardball, of doing "anything to deny the other guy a resource that may be key to them," that's a game both parties play, said King.
But there was no mistaking the shock on the other side when it became clear what Walker was proposing.
"This was really a very dramatic proposal," said Squire, the political scientist. "It was a significant attempt to shift public policy, and it was met by a significant backlash."
The reaction within labor, the Democratic Party and the progressive movement, which saw the move as an audacious kill shot aimed at their political coalition, was swift and seismic.
"A critical mass of people realized the only way to stop this was to go to the street," said Robert Kraig of Citizen Action Wisconsin. "I haven't experienced anything like it."
For many on both sides, there is a broader context and epic sweep to the battle that ensued.
For conservatives, it is raging deficits and untamed government.
"The people of Wisconsin and the American people are ready to have this fight," said Wisconsin's Reince Priebus, national Republican chairman, in an interview Saturday.
"Led by famously progressive Wisconsin - Scott Walker at the state level and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan at the congressional level - a new generation of Republicans has looked at the debt and is crossing the Rubicon," wrote conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on Friday, celebrating the "magnificent turmoil" and "singular clarity" of the nation's Madison moment.
"Budgets are blowing up all over the country," said Ryan, the Janesville congressman. "We've got a new (group) of conviction politicians at all levels of government looking at this situation and telling the truth (about it)."
For the left and labor, the broader context is unchecked corporate power, economic inequality and an already embattled union movement.
"Republicans are using the economy to kick the middle class in the teeth," said MoveOn.org's executive director Justin Ruben, whose organization coordinated rallies Saturday in 50 state capitals. "We want to nationalize that fight."
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2-million member National Education Association, called the struggle in Wisconsin a defining moment for the American labor movement. "It's defining because if collective bargaining is eliminated, there is nothing but a corporate voice," he said.
Declining numbersIn 2010, the national union membership rate - the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union - was 11.9%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1%. During that decline, the public sector has become the heart of organized labor (36.2% of public sector workers were unionized in 2010 compared with 6.9% of private-sector workers) as well as an essential player in Democratic politics.
Each party has a financial foundation, said pollster Maslin. For Democrats, the four-legged stool it relies on for contributions consists of labor, grass roots and online activists, trial lawyers and wealthy individuals.
"You take away one of those legs and guess what? We're weakened!" said Maslin. "I think both sides quickly perceived the stakes. This is not just Wisconsin, this is the whole country. It's not just one isolated governor (proposing this), it's a whole series of them. This isn't just one budgetary issue, it's an assault on public unions in general. It's not just an esoteric political argument, it's raw political power. Both sides quickly perceived how much was at stake here, and that's why it blew up. . . . It went viral every which way."
The chain of events Walker set into motion - the prolonged mass protests, the flight of Democratic legislators, the raucous civil war in the state Assembly - has poisoned an already harsh political climate in Wisconsin. And it's given the country a glimpse of the bile and dysfunction that could ensue from a similar standoff in Washington.
One sign of the way the debate has been nationalized is that Republican politicians across the country are finding themselves forced to take a position on the specifics of what Walker has proposed.
An explicit debate over the pros and cons of public-sector unions is one that some conservatives relish.
"We never got the media to pay attention (to the issue) . . . up until 10 days ago," said Mark Block, who used to run the conservative group Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin and now works for Republican Herman Cain, a possible long-shot presidential candidate.
But it's an argument some Republicans still are reluctant to join, including many GOP governors. Even Walker, who started it all, has sought repeatedly to frame the issue as a budget debate, not a debate about bargaining rights.
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