CHICAGO - The 14 Democratic state senators who left Wisconsin to avoid a vote on Thursday said that they will only return when Gov. Scott Walker is ready to talk.
That's according to Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton, one of the absent lawmakers, who is currently in Chicago. Earlier on Thursday, all 14 senators had been together at the Clock Tower Resort hotel in Rockford, Ill. The legislators were fanned out across Illinois on Friday morning.
Erpenbach apologized that the interview had to be held across state lines.
"I'd rather be home sleeping," he laughed.
But Erpenbach said he and his colleagues were left with no other choice as Walker and Republicans pushed through a budget repair bill just a week after it was first introduced.
"This is an extreme piece of legislation, and this was our only option, as extreme as it was," he said.
Walker said he's looking at legal options to bring the missing lawmakers back to the Capitol, but no Wisconsin law can compel Erpenbach and the other 13 Democrats who fled the state to return.
"(Walker's) job is to lead responsibly; his job is to lead by consensus, if at all possible. It's his job to sit down and talk to people about here';s where we are, how are we all going to get where we all need to be," said Erpenbach.
Erpenbach said he was proud of the thousands of demonstrators both inside and outside the Capitol, but acknowledged Wisconsin's current climate is not a happy place to be."
He's concerned about what many protesters may not know, that the budget bill does more than strip away public workers' collective bargaining rights and increase their contributions to their health care and pensions. It also leaves the future of the state's health care programs up in the air.
"There are some substantial Medicaid changes in here where the governor, all of a sudden, is in charge of Medicaid, which is SeniorCare, which is BadgerCare. And he has never once said what he intends to do," said Erpenbach.
For those who felt the move by the group, now dubbed the "Wisconsin 14" was a sign of their unwillingness to bend, Erpenbach said this:
"In the end, what's going to happen is the public employees are going to pay on their pension and pay on their health care. We all know that, they all know that. They're OK with that. The one thing the public employees do not understand is why (Walker) is going after unions."
Erpenbach also shot back at critics who said the senators were cowards and not doing their job.
"We are absolutely doing our job. What we are doing by taking this action is standing up for the people of the state of Wisconsin, for the people we represent in our districts. I've had over 10,000 contacts alone this week from people saying either, 'Stop it,' or 'Slow it down.' We need to have an honest, open debate on this and it isn't happening. So we are absolutely doing our job. We are standing up for the people who don't like this or want to see some changes."
Erpenbach said the issue of union rights is not a fiscal item and doesn't belong in a fiscal bill.
"This legislation clearly has torn this state apart, and when you look at the fabric of Wisconsin, unions are very strong in this state," he said. "So you're basically taking that fabric and ripping it in half."
Erpenbach said he doesn't feel like he's on the run, instead, he feels like he's doing the right thing.
"(Walker ) basically said on Friday afternoon, 'This is what we're doing. If you don't like it, that's too bad. And by the way, we're going to get this done within a week. And that's not the way to go," said Erpenbach. "(Senate Democrats) certainly can slow down and debate this and see if we can make it better, see if we can make some changes to it."
He admits he's not sure exactly how long he and his Senate colleagues will stay out of the state. But he feels like the Republicans in the Senate are starting to feel wearier about voting for the bill, and if Democrats find out there are enough Republicans that will vote against it, it would be their cue to head back to Madison.
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