- Tom Silva
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Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker – a Tea Party favorite — accused the state legislature’s 14 Democratic senators of “vacationing” because they walked out of the State Legislature and took refuge in Illinois to avoid a vote that would strip most of the state’s employees of their collective bargaining rights. Because of the Democrats’ absence, the Senate is unable to reach a necessary quorum to act. “Instead of stimulating the hospitality sector of Illinois’ economy, Senate Democrats should come back to the Madison, debate the bill, cast their vote, and help get Wisconsin’s economy back on track,” Walker said.
The Democrats are refusing to return unless Walker is willing to make concessions to the bill. Republican legislative leaders – who are a majority with 19 seats — say they have enough votes to pass the bill as is. Walker has rejected any compromise with thousands of pro-union protesters who have been camped out in the Capitol for a week, claiming that Wisconsin will lead America in weakening unions that have negotiated compensation packages. Democratic lawmakers, union leaders and rank-and-file teachers and firefighters have asked Walker to revise his plan.
Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Ezra Klein notes that “The Badger State was actually in pretty good shape. It was supposed to end this budget cycle with about $120 million in the bank.
“More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees),” according to Klein. “In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative healthcare policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit. As Brian Beutler writes, ‘public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda.'”
That’s not the complete story, Klein notes. “Public employees aren’t being asked to make a one-time payment into the state’s coffers. Rather, Walker is proposing to sharply curtail their right to bargain collectively. A cyclical downturn that isn’t their fault, plus an unexpected reversal in Wisconsin’s budget picture that wasn’t their doing, is being used to permanently end their ability to sit across the table from their employer and negotiate what their health insurance should look like.”
Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) expressed concern that Republicans might try to split off the union bargaining sections of the budget repair bill – which on its own would not be considered a financial bill – from the rest of the proposal. Republican senators have enough votes to pass a union bargaining proposal without adequate debate, Erpenbach said. “Obviously we have a great deal of concern about it. If they want this over immediately, that’s the only thing they can do.”
For Wisconsin’s teachers, the elimination of collective bargaining rights could mark a return to the days of regular strikes and workplaces where employees worry about taking too many sick days and the length of their breaks. “It is almost impossible for us to get our heads around the idea of no union,” said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. The association supports changes to the collective bargaining law – which has been in effect since 1959 — but opposes its elimination. According to Turner, eliminating collective bargaining would radically change what is now a mostly cordial working relationship between school administrators and teachers. “There is an established method for doing business,” Turner said. “There is an understanding between management and labor about how things will work.”