In a period of less than 24 hours the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly have passed a bill that effectively strips the collective bargaining rights of all state employees who are not public safety personnel. The issue of collective bargaining rights has been the most contentious and debated point of Gov. Walker’s budget repair bill. Debate over the measures and stipulations contained within the bill has been ongoing both in and outside the state legislature for almost a month with both sides drawing proverbial lines in the sand. Gov. Walker stated that raising state employee contributions to their health benefits by 12%, ceding 5.8% of their salary, and contributing to 50% percent of their pensions was a necessary measure to help plug the $137 million hole in this fiscal year’s state budget. The recently passed bill will contribute $37.5 million dollars to this shortfall according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The debate over collective bargaining rights for state unions has captured both national and international attention over the past month due in large part to the fleeing of the 14 Senate Democrats to Illinois, and sustained protests, rallies, and demonstrations at the Capitol with weekend protest crowds reaching upwards of 100,000 according to some estimates. There was some pause for optimism earlier in the week for union supporters with news of negotiations between Senate Democrats Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) and Republican representatives including Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Gov. Walker. However, the negotiations brought about little in terms of any definitive resolutions or concessions.
Republicans were able to pass the measure stripping the collective bargaining rights of union members by reformatting the budget repair bill. Because a quorum is needed for any bill pertaining to appropriations the Republicans took out language that dealt directly with budget appropriations and convened a conference committee at 6pm on Wednesday with members of both parties present. Objections to the swiftly convened nature of the committee were raised by Democrats, particularly by lone Democrat committee representative Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). However, because the legislature is in special session “Senate rule permits no advance notice for meetings when it is in special session – which it is when it’s dealing with the budget-repair bill,” according to Senate chief clerk Rob Marchant. After the committee passed the bill 5-1 it went to the Senate for a vote. A quorum was not necessary to hold a vote on the reconfigured bill, negating the deadlock imposed on the Senate by the absent 14 Senate Democrats, and it passed the Senate 18-1 with Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) the lone dissenting Republican.
After the early evening Senate vote on Wednesday news of the bill’s passing in the Senate leaked out into the press. Protests soon reassumed at the Capitol Wednesday night with approximately 6,000-7,000 converging on the Capitol to voice their discontent. Around 200 protesters spent the night despite a court ruling against such action. Debate on the bill resumed at 11am this morning in the Assembly with all the passion and fervor that has come to characterize the past few weeks. Initially debate on the bill was stalled as both Republican and Democratic legislators were unable to gain entrance to the Capitol because it was locked to deter the entrance of protesters, and also because protesters were being forcibly removed from the Capitol with some legislators having to crawl in through the windows of their colleagues to gain entrance.
After 3 plus hours of debate on the floor, a failed attempt by Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) to strip Assembly leader Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) of his Speaker duties, and hours of protest, the Assembly passed the revised budget bill 53-42. The bill now goes to Gov. Walker to be signed which could be as early as Friday. Shouts of “Shame!” “Kill the Bill!” and “The Whole World is Watching!” could be heard from protestors inside the chamber as roll was called. The chants and shouts continued as Assembly members exited the chamber with protesters voicing their dissatisfaction with bill.
Legal challenges are already being mounted by Democrats and union leaders as to the legality of Wednesday night’s conference committee. Large protests are also scheduled for Saturday despite the passing of the budget repair bill. The 14 missing Senate Democrats are also expected to start trickling back into Wisconsin between now and Saturday with the passage of the bill now over. What remains to be seen however is how this affects the political tone in Wisconsin with other budget initiatives, battles, and future layoffs looming in the very near future. Further, various recall initiatives have begun throughout the state with 8 Republicans and 6 Democrats up for possible recall votes.