Gov. Calls Democrat Boycott 'Stunt'

Thousands Of Protesters Descend On Capitol

Published On: Feb 17 2011 10:36:42 AM CST   Updated On: Feb 18 2011 07:50:04 AM CST
MADISON, Wis. -

Wisconsin's Republican governor said he's confident Democrats who left the state to avoid voting on a bill removing union rights will return within a day or two, calling the boycott a "stunt."

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Democrats who left the state on Thursday before the Senate session started said they want Gov. Scott Walker to meet with them to discuss concessions after three straight days of protests that brought tens of thousands of people to the Capitol building.

Walker said Democrats can offer amendments to change the bill and talk with him, but he won't concede on his plan to remove collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers.

Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he's disappointed with the comments. Erpenbach said senators had been in Illinois but they were on the move Thursday.

Walker issued a statement Thursday after the Democrats failed to show up for the vote, causing an indefinite delay. Thousands of protesters filled the halls of the Capitol urging rejection of the bill, which Walker said is needed to deal with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Walker said Democrats should return out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process. He said their actions are disrespectful to public employees and taxpayers they represent.

Erpenbach said they won't come back until Walker is willing to negotiate.

Walker said he received 8,000 e-mails Thursday from people on both sides of the bill. But he said senators need to get back to Madison to do their jobs.

"We're certainly looking at all legal options out there, but I have faith that after they do their stunt for a day or two, it's more about theatrics than anything else, that they'll come back and realize again that they're elected to do a job," Walker said. "And I think even people who may be up in the air about whether or not they should vote for or against the measure, I think those people by and large expect their senators to show up."

No Democrats were present at the start of the state Senate session shortly after 11 a.m. to vote on a bill stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights.

The Senate sergeant at arms immediately went to look for members in the Capitol, but to no avail.

Republicans called the action shocking and shameful.

"I don't know what the logic is to say, 'No, we're not going to show up and vote.' That's not democracy, that's not what this building is about; that's not what this chamber is about," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Police officers were looking for the lawmakers who were ordered to attend a vote. The absent lawmakers were ultimately found in a Rockford, Ill., hotel on Thursday, just over the border from where Wisconsin State Patrol troopers would be able to bring them back for a vote.

Earlier Thursday, Erpenbach said the group of 14 Democratic lawmakers are boycotting the vote. They said they want to force negotiations over the Republican-backed bill.

Erpenbach said the plan is to slow down the bill because it's "tearing the state apart."

"It's not like we're trying to make history or it's some sort of high school prank here. We're very sincere in our efforts to try and make sure everybody has a chance to speak their mind on this," Erpenbach said in a phone interview.

"There's been tens of thousands of citizens who have protested the legislation the governor has been tone deaf to them. We're providing them an opportunity to be heard," said Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, from Illinois.

Erpenbach said he isn't sure how long lawmakers will remain out of state.

"I don't know, that's a great question. I don't know how long it's going to take, but at the very least we've got to realize the governor has got to talk with people who disagree with him," Erpenbach said.

But the question is whether all senators will agree. Just before leaving the city Thursday, Janesville Sen. Tim Cullen expressed concerns.

"I think protests are appropriate at this time, not just by those who are here but by those who are elected to be here. So I don't object to the idea of protests. I oppose the thing as strongly as they do, but I don't understand the endgame," Cullen said.

As of Thursday night, Senate Democrats had left Rockford and were at a hotel in Freeport, Ill.

The Wisconsin Senate adjourned for the day Thursday after minority Democrats failed to show up for a vote on the contentious collective bargaining bill.

Republicans who control the Senate had scheduled a vote on the bill Thursday morning. Debate was supposed to begin around midday, but the body's 14 Democrats never showed up. Without a quorum, Republicans could not vote.

Senate President Mike Ellis, a Neenah Republican, called an end to Thursday's floor session around 4:45 p.m. Republicans planned to return to the floor on Friday. It was unclear if Democrats would return for the Senate to take it up Friday.

The proposal, which has been described as the nation's most aggressive anti-union measure by some Capitol watchers, has been speeding through the Legislature. The bill cleared a major legislative hurdle on Wednesday night after the Joint Finance Committee passed the measure shortly before midnight. The legislation is now headed to votes in the Senate and Assembly.

The Wisconsin state Assembly said it won't be taking any action until at least Friday on Walker's proposal. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said the Assembly would not take any action on Thursday.

Lawmakers had planned for the Senate to pass the bill first followed by the Assembly.

The state Department of Administration estimated 20,000 people attended protests outside the state Capitol on Thursday, while 5,000 protesters filled the rotunda and hallways. While Democrats have been successfully in delaying action for at least a day, Republicans said they have the votes to pass it.

The move would mark a dramatic shift for Wisconsin. The state passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.

The governor's proposal to end most collective bargaining for the majority of state employees set off a firestorm of opposition with rallies that attracted 13,000 people on Tuesday, 20,000 on Wednesday and thousands more on Thursday.

Most of the demonstrators on Thursday gathered in front of the state Senate chambers where lawmakers had planned to take up Walker's bill to end collective bargaining, except on issues of salary, for most public employees.

Walker has said the bill will help close Wisconsin's $137 million shortfall in the state's current budget and a projected $3.6 billion deficit in the next two-year budget. The governor introduced the idea last week.

Walker said it's needed to help balance the budget, but opponents said it's an unfair assault on middle-class workers.

Protesters remained at the Capitol on Thursday night after a day of unprecedented maneuvering and Capitol drama.

"It's been really incredible. It's been a really moving day I think," said Alexandra Fayen, a Madison social worker.

The crowd of thousands was galvanized by news that Democratic senators sided with them and left town, delaying a vote.

"(The news) all kind of filtered through from the balconies back to us. We got it through other people," Fayen said.

Assembly Democrats said they are backing their Senate colleagues but said they won't necessarily do the same.

"They want to take more time. They feel it is wrong what (the governor's) doing. I feel it is wrong what he's doing, to have this significant of a change for people's rights, in six days, I just think is egregious," said Democratic Rep. Peter Barca, Assembly minority leader.

Meanwhile, protesters said they're wondering what happens next.

"It was really exciting that they supported us and left, but it also makes me wonder what happens next. How long are we stuck here? When do we go back to work?" Fayen said.

As of Thursday afternoon, nine people have been arrested in the third day of widespread protests at the Wisconsin Capitol. The arrests come after two days of incident-free rallies and demonstrations, as protesters have remained mostly peaceful. State officials did not immediately return calls asking for details on the nine arrests.

Dane County Emergency Management is setting up a staging area for officers helping out at the Capitol. The Emergency Command Center is stationed at the Alliant Energy Center. It includes police officers from agencies throughout the county, including Middleton and Sun Prairie, who are setting up at the center and then being bussed to the Capitol Square.

Stay tuned to WISC-TV and Channel 3000 for continuing coverage.