The Fight for Wisconsin
Bipartisanship may be making headway in Washington, D.C., where President Obama and Republicans have at long last agreed on a two-week budget extension, but it’s nowhere to be found in Wisconsin. The standoff in Madison continues unabated— a dead heat between Democrats and Republicans, as well as between Republicans and state workers.
It all began on February 11th, when Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed his Budget Repair Bill, which tries to reduce the $137 million deficit in the state budget by severely limiting public workers’ rights to collectively bargain. It would also require state workers to pay 12.6% of the total cost of their health care premiums and put 5.8% of their pay towards their pension benefits.
But state workers weren’t happy, and it didn’t take them long to show it. For more than two weeks now they’ve been staging protests—as the New York Times puts it, the state Capitol building in Madison has been turned into “an elegant sleepover for a resilient band of protestors.”
While state workers’ unions have agreed to pay more for their health care and pension, they refuse to concede the right to collectively bargain about their benefits. When asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” why he didn’t just accept a compromise, Walker spewed a flood of rehearsed answers. His proposal, he said, was less restrictive than Obama’s, adding that he used to work as a local official and therefore personally understood the costs of collective bargaining.
Answers like these only fueled Democrats in the state’s government, who see no solid connection between collective bargaining and the deficit, and think this is merely a ploy by Walker to hurt state worker unions. After the assembly passed the bill, the Democrats fled to Illinois on February 17th, leaving the Republican-led state Senate without the quorum needed to vote; while Republicans hold a 19-14 majority, without a 20th vote they can’t pass any bill that spends money.
The result of all this is a state government stuck in limbo, a Capitol that’s been turned into a pajama party, and a national debate about state workers’ unions and what should be sacrificed in this age of enormous government deficits. And as we saw in Washington with the federal budget battle, neither side is giving in.
“This is a battle to the death,” Mordecai Lee, a political scientist, told the Associated Press. “Unless one party can come up with a compromise that the other party will buy, which I doubt, this really could go on indefinitely.”
Walker and other Republicans have bee trying to lure the Dems back from Illinois, passing a resolution to charge them a $100 fine for each day they are missing, but to no avail. Walker has also been using scare tactics, threatening the loss of funds and a massive layoff of state workers.
“This is the Senate Democrats’ 24 hour notice,” said Walker’s spokesman on February 28th. “They have one day to return to work before the state loses out on the chance to refinance debt, saving taxpayers $165 million.”
But as Richard A. Oppel points out in this article, Walker’s threats have little basis in the bill. In fact, the state government doesn’t really have to pass anything to pay its bills until at least May.
“I could see this going on until the summer,” said Lee.
That may very well happen; in 2007, under similar circumstances, the Wisconsin state government didn’t pass a budget until October.
In the polls, meanwhile, the majority of people in Wisconsin, and the country, are siding with the protestors, and Walker is coming out as the big loser in all of this. A website called “Scott Walker Watch” has popped up, voters in Wisconsin are collecting signatures to recall him and other Republicans, and, in the meantime, the state Senate has been reduced to passing “legislation,” like a resolution congratulating the Green Bay Packers for winning the Super Bowl.