MADISON, Wis. - Testimony about Gov. Scott Walker's plan to eliminate collective bargaining for public workers has finally ended, five hours after the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee ended the hearing.
Democratic lawmakers continued a listening session into the early morning hours for citizens that didn't get a chance to speak to the full committee earlier.
People that hadn't gotten the chance to speak didn't leave the building, pulling out sleeping bags in the rotunda and settling in. So, Democratic lawmakers decided to stay at the Capitol, allowing testimony to stretch more than 20 hours.
The committee was in its 12th straight hour of taking testimony when co-chair Rep. Robin Vos, of Rochester, said Tuesday night that no additional speakers would be allowed to speak other than the roughly 300 that had already signed up.
"The testimony we're hearing, while it's good and compelling personal stories, we're not necessarily plowing a whole lot of new ground. People are taking about the issues we've already heard before," said Vos.
Vos said he's trying to avoid what a previous testifier called a "citizen filibuster" to delay legislative action on the bill. The co-chairs also considered curtailing the amount of time that registered people have to speak.
The hallways outside the hearing room were filled with people chanting "let us speak" and "kill the bill" after they realized that no more people could sign up to speak.
Democrats on the panel cried foul and said everyone who showed up should be allowed to testify.
"We have not heard of ever a hearing ending before every person had the right to speak. That ended here tonight. That is a Wisconsin tradition we should never allow to end," said Assembly minority leader Rep. Peter Barca.
"For those who were discourages and felt great defeat after November 3rd and felt as though we were down and out, at 3:00 in the morning after a daylong hearing, this is the rebirth of the progressive movement in Wisconsin," said Sen. Robert Rauch.
Rep. Vos said he expects the committee to reconvene sometime around noon Wednesday for discussion before taking a vote on the bill. Vos said he expects few changes to be made to the bill before it's passed. The full Senate is expected to have enough votes to pass the bill as soon as Thursday, with the Assembly expected to follow.
Another major set of protests are scheduled at the Capitol Wednesday. An estimated 13,000 people showed up at the Capitol Tuesday to protest the bill.
The hearing before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee began at 10 a.m. Tuesday and scores of people jammed into the hearing room. Government workers told the committee the bill would send Wisconsin backward. The bill's supporters said public workers must make sacrifices to help balance the state's budget.
Meg Ellefson, who said she leads the Wausau Tea Party, said her husband has always accepted what his employer offered and paid his share of health insurance costs with no negotiation.
"This isn't about private versus public sector. This isn't about us versus them. This is about we the people of Wisconsin. What are we the people of Wisconsin going to do as individuals to help save our state?" Ellefson said.
Monona Grove High School teacher Denise Peterson countered that the bill is about destroying unions, not the state's finances.
"What does denying school districts and local municipalities the right to collective bargain, if they choose to, have to do with your budget? Nothing," Peterson said.
Throughout the day Tuesday, hundreds of passionate residents stood in a line that snaked down hallways outside the hearing room.
"I think probably at some point this afternoon, I should get in here. I'll wait all day if I have to," said Michael Amato, a University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching assistant.
Hundreds more packed overflow rooms, where they were allowed to clap and cheer and hold signs.
"I did want to speak, but there's a long wait; the list is too long," said Kathleen Rideout, a city of Madison employee.
Even more people spent parts of the day in the Capitol rotunda to watch the committee on TVs there, and at times, the chanting got too loud to even hear the audio blasting from TVs, WISC-TV reported.
Lawmakers said that speakers addressing the committee would only get two minutes to speak before the body, which upset some lawmakers. But despite the uproar, DOA officials said that they're trying to quell fears about the bill.
The committee chairs asked for no outbursts. They said during the first applause for speakers' comments, they'd ask people to leave if it continued.
Both speakers for and against Walker's plan addressed the committee.
"I feel this is a wonderful start and possibly the best way to make sure that the most people keep their jobs," said Sanna Huebschmann.
"Last year, I made $11,000 as a teaching assistant. I worked every single month out of the year, (and earned) $11,000. Now, you say that we get our health insurance paid, well look how much we make," said Jillian Jacklin.
"This bill is only the beginning. It is a bold start and we should all get ready for much more because we have reaped without sewing a single seed for a very long time now," said Kim Simac.
"With this bill, Wisconsin will not be open for business. It will be closed indefinitely for repair," said Christine Mattis.
On Tuesday, thousands of people converged at the state Capitol for rallies and to attend the public hearing on Gov. Scott Walker's proposal doing away with collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration estimated that 10,000 protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol on Tuesday, with 3,000 more filling the Capitol rotunda. The labor supporters are protesting Walker's budget repair bill, which would strip most state and local workers of collective bargaining rights, except when negotiating salary.
The protesters are taking issue with Walker's plan. The governor argues the workers are getting by easy compared to private sector employees and they need to be forced to pay more for health care benefits and their pensions. He's proposing that their rights to bargain over everything except wages to a limited extent be removed. Walker said the changes are needed to help deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall. Walker said he has nothing to negotiate with the unions over because the state is broke.
Unions and Democratic critics said Walker has declared war against middle-class workers and his proposal would devastate the state's economy. Union leaders said at a news conference Monday they're urging Walker to instead resume negotiations with the unions.
Protest Organized At Capitol
While lawmakers hear public testimony on the bill, state workers and several labor activist groups are making their voices heard outside the Capitol.
Protesters arrived by the bus load Tuesday morning and the crowd circled the Capitol. Some of the protesters carried signs calling to "Stop the Attack on Wisconsin Families and Workers." The crowd has been chanting "Kill the Bill" and "Recall Walker."
Members of ASCFME, educators and University of Wisconsin students chanted "Union Busting has got to go." Many protesters took residence on the steps or sidewalk of the Capitol while others have filed into the Capitol rotunda, where the hearing is being broadcast on several televisions. The crowd has occasionally burst in a chorus of boos in response to legislator's comments.
"Its about the assault on labor, an assault on the working human being, to take and throw away the contract and say it's balancing the budget is bull crap," said Marty Winchester, of ASCFME 1449.
A range of public employees and supporters joined members of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and immigrant rights activists to stage rallies on the steps of the Capitol. Wisconsin Education Association Council will also be holding a candlelight vigil following the rallies.
"I'm proud of our state of Wisconsin, and I don't want to lose that pride," said Caryl Yasko, of Whitewater.
"I think he's got to get our message. I'm not a teacher either, but my daughters are in the Monona Grove School District, and they're tearing our teachers apart," said parent Rachel Winkley.
When firefighters arrived, carrying signs in support of the protesters, they received a huge ovation from the crowd. Local firefighters, such as local police and members of the Wisconsin State Patrol, are exempt in the bill.
"We're the first people you call when you have a problem, but these people do what they do day in and day out, and you don't even see their impact. They have an incredible impact that's not even stated or recognized," said Andrew Brandl, a Fitchburg firefighter.
Inside the Capitol, another 3,000 protesters continued the rally Tuesday.
Students, apparently from Madison East High School, could be seen marching down East Washington Avenue toward the Capitol shortly before noon. Some students said that teachers didn't accompany those marching downtown.
Amid all those opposing Walker and his bill was one Madison East High School student who wanted to show his support for the governor.
"I thought I'd come here, support the man I voted for and start a dialogue. I feel like a lot of people are coming out here ready to protest but they're not ready to understand the issue that's at hand," said Trevor Schumann, a student at Madison East High School.
Many against the bill said Tuesday it has nothing to do with money but rather workers' rights, and they're not going to lie down and let the bill pass.
Protesters outside the Capitol started to leave around 1 p.m., but many remained within the Capitol beating drums and occasionally chanting. Madison Teachers Inc. and other supporters renewed the protests outside the Capitol on Tuesday evening.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council is holding a vigil Tuesday night for members who couldn't make it out earlier in the day.
Senator: There Are Votes To Pass Bill
The president of the Wisconsin state Senate said that he believes there are enough votes among Republicans to pass Walker's plan.
Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah told The Associated Press on Tuesday that there are the 17 votes needed in the 19-member Republican caucus to pass Walker's proposal.
Ellis said senators are worried that not passing the plan would lead to thousands of layoffs among state workers.
Ellis said he would have preferred to vote on a different version of the bill, but as it stands now, Walker has the votes to get what he wants.
Meanwhile, Republican state senators are keeping quiet about their talks over Walker's plan. They met behind closed doors on Monday in the Capitol to talk about the bill.
Several senators contacted early Tuesday morning didn't immediately return telephone messages seeking comment or their mailboxes were full.
AFT-Wisconsin lobbyist Scott Spector said he doesn't know what direction talks among Republican senators went on Monday. Spector said the union has meetings set with lawmakers on Tuesday.
State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said lawmakers are still talking about Walker's bill. He wouldn't comment on whether there were enough votes for it to pass the Senate.
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