The gambit by 14 Democratic state senators to leave the state Thursday instead of being outvoted on a hugely controversial budget bill has drawn national attention, cheers from supporters and a tongue-lashing from Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The Senate convened Thursday to vote on a proposal from Walker he says is necessary to shore up the state's finances. In addition to forcing public employees to contribute more for their health insurance and pension plans, it would also strip their unions (except those of firefighters and most law enforcement officers) of the power to negotiate anything except salaries. Wage increases, however, could not be greater than a cost of living increase unless approved through a voter referendum.
Republicans say they have the votes to pass the bill in both the Senate and the Assembly, but the Senate cannot pass fiscal legislation without 20 of its 33 members present, and there are only 19 Republican senators.
Calling it "a shame" the senators couldn't "show up to do their jobs" and describing their actions as "undemocratic," Walker and other top Republican leaders lashed out at the Democrats for forcing them to postpone a vote less than a week after the 144-page document was made public.
"I showed up to work today," Walker told reporters at a news conference late Thursday afternoon. "I did what I was elected to do."
The Democratic senators stayed at least part of the day at the Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center in Rockford, Ill, but they have since moved, according to WISC/TV-3. Several of them have indicated to various news sources that they are not returning to Wisconsin until Walker agrees to discuss one of the most controversial portions of the bill on bargaining rights.
The move won cheers and approval from allies at the Capitol, where thousands of people have been demonstrating since Monday.
State Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, who is also running for Dane County executive, said Walker's own actions forced the senators to do what they did.
"Walker doesn't negotiate. Whether it's with state workers or Democratic lawmakers, he wouldn't come to the table," Parisi said. "And that's the problem."
Since being elected in November, Walker has pushed the idea that bold actions are needed to fix the state's economy and to show that Wisconsin is "open for business." He and members of the GOP leadership often say they were given a mandate by voters to make drastic changes.
To date, that's what they have done.
In office for six weeks, Walker has experienced little to no pushback from the GOP-controlled Legislature. As a result, he has signed seven bills into law.
But the Democratic senators are putting the brakes on this one.
"Senate Democrats took action today to allow time for the involved parties to work together to balance the budget," said Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, in a prepared statement. "We did not undertake our actions lightly. But we believe, out of respect for our public institutions, the people of Wisconsin and our long tradition of working together, our fiscal challenges can be met without taking away workers' rights."
Still, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters after realizing his Democratic counterparts were not showing up for the vote that he "was just not sure why this ploy is being used now."
To others, it was rather clear.
"Gov. Walker and the Republican Legislature are trying to ram this (bill) through in less than a week," said Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now. "The senators have rightfully taken matters into their own hands."
Several teachers from Franklin Elementary School in Madison agreed the Democratic senators made the right move, with one, Therese Kolan, calling it "brilliant."
"It is creative problem solving at its best," said Marilyn Smith, a teacher at Franklin. "It proves that no matter what Walker thinks, the Democratic senators do matter."Wisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveWisconsin Wave