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Democrats, GOP continue standoff in Wisconsin

For now, Senate plans to review other business

Protesters seeking to protect collective bargaining rights for public unions slept in the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., yesterday. Protesters seeking to protect collective bargaining rights for public unions slept in the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., yesterday. (Darren Hauck/Reuters)
By Scott Bauer
Associated Press / February 22, 2011

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MADISON, Wis. — No resolution appeared imminent yesterday to the stalemate over union rights in Wisconsin, leaving Senate Republicans resigned to forge ahead with less-controversial business such as tax breaks for dairy farmers and commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl.

As the standoff entered its second week, none of the major players offered any signs of backing down in a high-stakes game of political chicken that has riveted the nation and led to ongoing public protests that drew a high of 68,000 people on Saturday. Thousands more braved cold winds and temperatures in the 20s to march again yesterday, waving signs that said “Stop the attack on Wisconsin families’’ and “Solidarity.’’

The 14 Senate Democrats who skipped town Thursday to indefinitely delay a vote on Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bill that would strip most collective bargaining rights from nearly all public employees remained missing for a fifth day.

“You have shut down the people’s government, and that is not acceptable,’’ the Republican Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, said during a brief meeting yesterday setting the agenda for today’s session.

Two of the missing Democrats participated by phone from an undisclosed location.

“You’re not in negotiations. There is no negotiation,’’ Fitzgerald said, cutting off one of the Democrats on the phone. “You need to get back to the floor of the Senate and offer any ideas you may have on final passage. That’s where we’re at. There is no negotiation.’’

Both the Senate and Assembly planned to be in session today to take up the bill, but at least one of the missing Democrats has to show up for a vote to be taken in the Senate. Assembly Democrats planned to offer dozens of amendments that could push a vote to tomorrow or later.

Although today’s list of items, including the resolution honoring the Packers, is largely bipartisan, Fitzgerald hinted that he might try to push some more controversial ones later, even if the Democrats aren’t back. Among the possibilities is a vote on the question of whether voters should be required to show identification at the polls.

The Democratic senators taking part in the scheduling meeting urged Republicans to accept the offer made by the unions under which they would accept paying more for benefits as Walker wants but still retain their collective bargaining rights.

Another compromise offered by Republican Senator Dale Schultz would remove collective bargaining rights just for two years.

“It’s time for all of us to move forward,’’ said Democratic Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay over the phone to the Republicans.

Walker has rejected both offers, saying local governments and school districts can’t be hamstrung by the often lengthy collective bargaining process and need to have more flexibility to deal with up to $1 billion in cuts he will propose in his budget next week and into the future.

“It will never get to me because other than that one state senator, all the rest of the Republicans are firmly behind our proposal,’’ Walker said in an MSNBC interview yesterday, calling it an unacceptable short-term fix.

The emergency plan he wants the Legislature to pass would address this year’s $137 million shortfall and start dealing with the $3.6 billion hole expected by mid-2013. The benefits concessions would amount to $30 million this year, but the largest savings Walker proposed comes from refinancing debt to save $165 million.

That portion must be done by Friday for bonds to be refinanced in time to realize the savings by June 30, the end of this fiscal year. Walker said not passing the bill would make even deeper cuts necessary and possibly result in laying off 1,500 workers over the next four months.

Thousands of those affected and their supporters marched on the Capitol for a seventh straight day. Hundreds of them have been sleeping in the rotunda every night and several districts have had to close after so many teachers called in sick. The Madison School District was closed Wednesday through yesterday but was expected to reopen today.

Districts in central Wisconsin were also closed yesterday, but that was because of 10 to 12 inches of snow. Milwaukee schools were shut down for a scheduled midsemester break. Those closures, on top of the day being a previously scheduled furlough day for state workers, resulted in another large crowd yesterday.

Walker’s plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum.

Unions also would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.

The plan would also require many public employees to cut their take-home pay by about 8 percent by contributing more of their salaries toward their health insurance and retirement benefits, concessions the unions have said they are willing to accept.

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