By Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel Updated: March 9, 2011
Madison — The Senate – without Democrats present – abruptly voted Wednesday to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for most public workers.
The bill, which has sparked unprecedented protests and drawn international attention, now heads to the Assembly, which is to take it up at 11 a.m. Thursday. The Assembly, which like the Senate is controlled by Republicans, passed an almost identical version of the bill Feb. 25.
The new version passed the Senate 18-1 Wednesday night, with Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) casting the no vote. There was no debate
Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) said Democrats who have been boycotting the Senate for three weeks would return to Wisconsin once the bill passes the Assembly, although he declined to be more specific.
From Feb. 17 until Wednesday, the Senate Democrats were able to block a vote on the bill because 20 senators were required to be present to vote for it. Republicans control the house 19-14.
Late Wednesday, a committee stripped fiscal elements from the bill that they said allowed them to pass it with a simple majority present. The most controversial parts of the bill remain intact.
That committee, formed just hours earlier, quickly approved the bill as the lone Democrat at the meeting screamed that Republicans were violating the state’s open meetings law.
The law requires most public bodies to give 24 hours notice before they meet. The conference committee met with about two hours notice.
“This is a violation of law! It’s not a rule!” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) bellowed.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) ignored Barca and ordered the role to be taken. Republicans voted for the measure as Barca continued to plead with them to stop the vote.
Republicans have not yet given an explanation of why they believe the committee could legally meet.
Minutes later, the Senate took up the bill and passed it without debate.
“Shame on you!” protesters cried from the galleries.
Democrats decried the move and warned it could end the political careers of some Republican senators who are under the threat of recall.
“I think it’s akin to political hara-kiri,” said Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar). “I think it’s political suicide.”
Walker praised the move in a statement.
“The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused,” Walker said. “In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature’s action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government.”
Fitzgerald said Republicans were forced to act because of the boycott by Democrats.
“The people of Wisconsin elected us to do a job,” his statement said. “They elected us to stand up to the broken status quo, stop the constant expansion of government, balance the budget, create jobs and improve the economy. The longer the Democrats keep up this childish stunt, the longer the majority can’t act on our agenda.”
But in an interview Miller warned Republicans they would face recalls.
“The people I don’t think knew what they were getting when they voted last November, so there will be a do-over” Miller said.
Miller also said the fight over collective bargaining is soon to leave the domain of the Legislature but is likely to be taken up in the courts.
Republicans said they were able to push through the bill by taking out a few provisions, including a $165 million bond restructuring and the no-bid sale of 37 state power plants. But the bill still includes several monetary changes, including charging public workers more for health care and pensions, which will save the state $330 million through mid-2013.
Republicans did not explain how those provisions could remain in the bill with fewer than 20 senators voting. Fitzgerald said the move was deemed acceptable by three widely respected non-partisan agencies – the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Bureau.
The budget-repair bill by Gov. Scott Walker would end most collective bargaining for public employees and has been at a stalemate for three weeks because Democrats have boycotted Senate sessions.
State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said Wednesday night he attempted to drive back from Illinois to Madison to get to the Capitol before Republicans passed the measure.
“This is on the Republicans’ heads right now,” he said. “If they decide to kill the middle class, it’s on them.”
Larson said Republicans will pay a political price for curtailing collective bargaining for public-sector employees.
“Everyone who is party to this travesty is writing their political obituary,” Larson said.
Demonstrations have rocked the Capitol for weeks as public workers have protested the changes to collective bargaining, but they have quieted somewhat in recent days. But the crowds swelled Wednesday as word of the conference committee meeting spread, and thousands chanted inside and outside the Capitol well after the building officially closed.
They cried, “Shame!” “This is not democracy!” and “You lied to Wisconsin!”
Earlier in the day, Republicans fined Democrats for missing the Senate session and lawmakers learned they had more time to resolve the budget impasse.
Walker had been steadfast in saying he would not negotiate on his budget-repair bill, but in recent days made offers to Democrats to slightly scale back some of his proposal with a separate piece of legislation.
Miller said Walker’s approach of making changes in separate legislation was unacceptable because Democrats are not sure they can trust Walker.
Walker’s bill would close a $137 million gap in the fiscal year that ends June 30, sharply curtail collective bargaining for most public employees, make public workers pay more for their pensions and health care, allow the no-bid sale of state power plants and give Walker’s administration broad powers over the state’s health care programs for the poor.
Walker had wanted the Senate to approve the budget-repair bill as written, but then have lawmakers make a few changes Democrats want in the state budget they will pass months from now. That approach raises concerns for Miller because state law makes it illegal for legislators to promise a vote on one bill in exchange for a vote on another one – a practice known as logrolling.
“That comes dangerously close to logrolling,” Miller said of Walker’s plan.
Earlier Wednesday, Senate Republicans voted to fine Democrats $100 each for missing the day’s session.
The fines passed 18-0. All Democrats were absent, as was Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere).
Lasee had an excused absence in the morning, and was present for the vote on the budget-repair bill later in the day.
Fines can be levied under a resolution adopted last week that applies to those who miss two consecutive sessions without an excused absence.
Walker’s administration said when his budget-repair bill was unveiled last month that it had to pass by Feb. 25 because of a bond deal included in the bill. But officials said Wednesday they may have until early April to secure the bond package.
The budget-repair bill also relies on the restructuring of $165 million in bonds to free up cash for the current fiscal year. Walker’s aides said when he unveiled the bill that it needed to pass by Feb. 25 to capture the bond deal, though they later said they had a few days after that.
On Wednesday, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau issued a memo saying the actual deadline may be in early April because of a move the administration is making.
Pinning down an exact deadline has always been difficult. Under state law, the administration must transfer money within state funds by a certain date to pay off existing bonds in May. Officials need about two weeks before that date to get an opinion from bond counsel, take bids and prepare for issuing the bonds.
Originally, officials said the fund transfers needed to occur on March 16, so the bill needed to pass by two weeks before that. Now, the administration believes it can delay the fund transfers until April 15 by prepaying some short-term debt – giving lawmakers until early April to pass the bill.
In a Wednesday memo to the governor, Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said the move had never been tried before.
Also Wednesday, Fitzgerald said he was expecting huge crowds for hearings on the budget and was considering holding them in sports arenas. That could mean holding hearings at the Kohl Center in Madison and the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, he said.
Thousands of people – often tens of thousands of people – have protested at the Capitol for weeks because of Walker’s budget-repair bill.
Walker has proposed deep cuts to schools and local governments to balance a two-year, $3.5 billion shortfall – cuts that he said local officials could handle if collective bargaining is severely curtailed.
4 p.m. – Senate meets abruptly to convene a conference committee on the budget-repair bill with about two hours’ notice.
6 p.m. – The committee meets and with no debate quickly advances a version of the measure.
6:10 p.m. – The Senate meets and without debate passes the new version of the measure, sending the bill to the Assembly.
Thursday, 11 a.m. – The Assembly is expected to pass the measure and send it to Gov. Scott Walker.
Bill Glauber in Milwaukee and Lee Bergquist in Madison contributed to this report.