As reported by app.com, the nearly month-long standoff in the Wisconsin Legislature over explosive union rights legislation rocketed toward a dramatic finish after Senate Republicans outmaneuvered their missing Democratic counterparts and pushed through the bill.
The extraordinary turn of events late Wednesday, March 9, 2011, set up a perfunctory vote Thursday morning in the Assembly on the measure that would strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from most public workers. Once the bill passes the Assembly, it heads to Republican Governor Scott Walker for his signature.
Within hours after the Senate passed the bill, a crowd of hundreds of protesters grew to about 7,000 in the Capitol, a crowd as large as any seen inside the building in three weeks of demonstrations. “The whole world is watching!” protesters shouted as they pressed up against the heavily guarded entrance to the Senate chamber. Most protesters left by midnight, many were expected back Thursday, but dozens of others spent the night in the Capitol corridors. State officials said no attempts would be made to force them to leave.
The bill had been stymied after all 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to pass it. Walker introduced it to plug a $137 million budget shortfall. The Senate requires a quorum of 20 to take up any measures that spend money. A special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted late Wednesday afternoon to take all the spending measures out of the legislation and the Senate approved it minutes later, 18-1. Republican Senator Dale Schultz cast the lone no vote.
Until Wednesday’s vote, it appeared the standoff would persist until Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile. However, in a matter of minutes, it was over. “ 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.”
Walker had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state’s $3.6 billion deficit. He has said that without the changes, he may have needed to layoff 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. 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.