Wisconsin Governor Urges Runaway Lawmakers to Return
Madison, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called for runaway Democratic lawmakers to return to the state by Tuesday and vote on his bill that would end most collective bargaining rights for public employees or else the state stood to lose out on a refinancing plan that would save 1,500 employees their jobs.
Speaking in La Crosse on Monday, Walker said the state faced "dire consequences" unless the 14 state senators return from their nearly two weeks away. His comments came as he planned to deliver his two-year budget plan in the state Assembly chamber Tuesday afternoon. He has said that plan will help make clear why the collective bargaining concessions he is seeking from public employees are necessary to help plug a $3.6 billion shortfall.
Walker has said his budget will include about a $1 billion cut in state aids to schools and local governments. He is also expected to propose dramatic changes to how the University of Wisconsin is organized, make cuts to Medicaid and possibly increase fees to help raise money.
The budget repair bill pending before the Senate calls for refinancing state debt to save $165 million by July 1, but in order to meet a March 16 deadline to get the work done the bill has to pass by Tuesday. Walker's office issued a statement Monday saying "more painful and aggressive spending cuts" will be needed if it doesn't pass.
Walker has also warned that he will start issuing layoff notices to state workers as soon as this week if the bill isn't passed, but he hasn't said who would be targeted. Schools started putting teachers on notice last week that they could be laid off given the uncertainty over the budget.
Also Monday, police said that cleaning of the Capitol was proceeding despite the continued presence of protesters in the building, as were security preparations for Walker's budget speech. But they also denied Capitol access to more protesters and other members of the public because of a dispute with protesters inside over which floor they could occupy.
Police decided not to forcibly remove protesters after thousands ignored a 4 p.m. Sunday deadline to leave so the normally immaculate building could get a thorough cleaning. Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said no demonstrators will be arrested as long as they continue to obey the law.
"People here have acted lawfully and responsibly," Tubbs said. "There's no reason to consider arrests."
The floors where several hundred protesters had slept previous nights looked unusually bare late Sunday as the smaller crowd of people walked around in socks, lounged on blankets and curled up under jackets.
But organizers said they were confident that demonstrators who were persuaded to leave Sunday would return to keep fighting Walker's efforts to strip nearly all public workers of their collective bargaining rights except over wages. Protesters have staged a sit-in that began Feb. 15 and hit its peak Saturday, when more than 70,000 people descended on the Capitol grounds for a rally.
Walker argues that his measure would help close a projected $3.6 billion deficit in the 2011-13 budget. He believes that freeing local governments from having to collectively bargain with public employee unions would give them the flexibility needed to deal with forthcoming budget cuts.
Labor leaders and Democratic lawmakers say the bill is intended to undermine the unions and weaken a key base of Democratic Party voters.
Paul Golueke, 24, a social worker from Milwaukee, said he planned to stay at the Capitol until at least Tuesday's budget address.
"If the budget contains provisions like in this budget-repair bill, I'll stay here as long as it takes," Golueke said. "Scott Walker doesn't understand our passion. The eyes of the nation, of the world, are on us and we can't back down."
The state agency that oversees the Capitol had asked demonstrators to leave by Sunday afternoon, saying the building was in dire need of a cleaning. But it was clear that the estimated 4,000 protesters had no intention of leaving voluntarily.
Tubbs, the police chief, said demonstrators who had occupied all three floors of the Capitol would have to relocate to the ground floor. He said anyone who left the building would not be allowed back in until the morning, although union officials were allowed to deliver food to the protesters during the night.
"It was a victory for peace. It was a victory for democracy," said Kara Randall, 46, a massage therapist from Middleton who had already spent five nights at the Capitol.
Walker's spokesman declined to comment late Sunday on the police decision to keep the Capitol open to demonstrators. In an interview earlier in the day on NBC's "Meet the Press," Walker said the lengthy protests haven't eroded his resolve to push forward with his legislative agenda.
"Year after year, governors and legislators before us have kicked the can down the road," Walker said. "We can't do that. We're broke. It's about time someone stood up and told the truth in our state and said here's our problem, here's the solution and let's do this."
Walker's proposal stalled in the state Senate when its 14 Democrats fled for Illinois, leaving the legislative body one vote short of a quorum. The Democratic senators have vowed to stay away from Wisconsin for as long as it takes. Democrats in Indiana have boycotted their statehouse for the past week to prevent a vote on Republican-backed proposals to introduce a similar bill.
Sen. Jim Holperin, one of the 14 from Wisconsin, said Monday that the Democrats remain united in their intention to stay away until a compromise can be found.
"I just believe there is some middle ground here," Holperin said.
One of the Democrats, Sen. Lena Taylor, sent a tweet to support the protesters that read: "Thank you for exercising your 1st amend right - I'm glad my actions give you opportunity to stand/sit/express yourself!"
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.