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Neither side budging in Wisconsin union fight

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SCOTT BAUER
February 22, 2011
— Republican backers of Gov. Scott Walker's plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees are trying to move the explosive proposal closer to reality, even as Democrats remained on the run and protesters filled the halls of the Capitol for a second week.

The Republican-controlled Assembly planned to debate and possibly vote on the measure Tuesday, but Democrats said they would offer more than 100 amendments in an attempt to improve the bill or at least drag it out in the hopes concessions will be made.


Things are even more chaotic in the Senate, where Democrats have halted the measure with a dramatic decision not to show up since Thursday. That has left Republicans, who control the chamber, one vote shy of the quorum needed to take up the plan.


Republicans planned to forge ahead with other business Tuesday, including a resolution honoring the Green Bay Packers for winning the Super Bowl and a bill extending tax breaks to dairy farmers. Those bills have bipartisan support, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has tried to put pressure on Democrats by threatening to take up more controversial matters.


It's a high-stakes game of political chicken that has riveted the nation and led to ongoing public protests that drew a high of 68,000 people on Saturday. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are budging: Walker says he won't negotiate, and the 14 missing Senate Democrats say they won't return until he does.


Public employees have said they would agree to concessions Walker wants that would amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average, but they want to retain their collective bargaining rights. One Republican senator also has floated an alternative that would make the elimination of those rights temporary.


Walker has repeatedly rejected both offers, saying local governments and school districts can't be hamstrung by the often lengthy collective bargaining process. He says they need to have more flexibility to deal with up to $1 billion in cuts he will propose in his budget next week and into the future.


As the Senate Democrats have stayed away, Republicans have accused them of sidestepping their jobs. Fitzgerald said he may move ahead Tuesday with some contentious issues, such as a GOP-backed proposal requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.


"You have shut down the people's government, and that is not acceptable," Fitzgerald said to Democrats during a brief meeting Monday setting the Senate's agenda for Tuesday. Two Democratic senators participated in the meeting by phone.


Democrats counter that Walker could compromise and put an end to the stalemate.


"It's right in front of the governor," Miller said. "He just needs to pick it up and allow us to move on. ... This is a no-brainer."


As Walker spoke under heavy guard at a late Monday afternoon news conference inside his conference room, thousands of protesters could be heard through the doors blowing whistles, banging on drums and chanting "Scott Walker has got to go!"


"This guy is power drunk and we're here to sober him up," said Bert Zipperer, 54, a counselor at a Madison middle school who was among the protesters. "He wants to do it unilaterally without any compromise. He wants to be a national conservative hero and he thinks he can get away with this."


Walker's plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum. Unions would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.


The emergency plan is meant to address this year's $137 million shortfall and start dealing with the $3.6 billion hole expected by mid-2013. The benefits concessions would amount to $30 million this year, but the largest savings Walker proposed comes from refinancing debt to save $165 million.


That portion must be done by Friday for bonds to be refinanced in time to realize the savings by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.


Walker said not passing the bill by Friday would make even deeper cuts necessary and possibly result in laying off 1,500 workers over the next four months.


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Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed to this report.



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