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Protesters come to Wis. Capitol for budget debate

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Associated Press
June 14, 2011
— Wisconsin lawmakers will be able to solely focus on a $66 billion plan to fund state government since the state's highest court upheld a contentious law Tuesday that takes away most public workers' collective bargaining rights, Republican leaders said.

The budget bill, which slashes $800 million from public schools and half a billion dollars from Medicaid, was scheduled for debate Tuesday evening in the state Assembly. Democrats have vowed to try to change the GOP-backed proposal, which they say slams Wisconsin education, the poor and middle class.


Republicans had planned to add the collective bargaining provisions to the bill, but they said it was no longer necessary because of the Supreme Court's 5 p.m. ruling. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said the ruling allows the Assembly to strictly focus on the two-year budget, which the Senate planned to take up Thursday.


"This budget is an assault, an attack on all the values we share in Wisconsin," said Assistant Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Deb Seidel of Wausau. "This is not an honest budget. We are going to hold our Republican colleagues' feet to the fire."


The bill, pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, would cut spending on public schools by $800 million and reduce their ability to make up the difference through property tax increases. It also would cut $500 million from the state's Medicaid programs and cap enrollment for Family Care, a program designed to keep poor, elderly residents out of nursing homes.


The bill also would slash University of Wisconsin System funding by $250 million.


Several changes to the budget were expected, including allowing UW to receive about $40 million to pay for broadband Internet service in schools and libraries across the state. Other expected changes relate to the expansion of voucher schools to Green Bay and a new requirement that local governments use private contractors for certain public works projects.


Republicans have defended the budget as a responsible plan that does away with a $3 billion shortfall without raising taxes and holding property taxes essentially flat over the next two years.


Republicans control the Assembly 59-38-1 with one vacancy. They also control the Senate 19-14.


Protesters organized rallies at the Capitol all day Tuesday to demonstrate primarily against the budget but also the collective bargaining provision, which was expected to be debated again.


The first time the union legislation was considered, in February and March, tens of thousands of protesters converged on the Capitol. Far fewer protesters several hundred marched around outside and gathered in the rotunda throughout the day Tuesday.


No crowd estimates would be released by Capitol Police, said spokesman David Carlson. He said there had been no arrests as of midday Tuesday. A late-afternoon rally outside the Capitol was organized by a variety of groups, including the AFL-CIO and the state's largest teachers' union.


Several protesters said they wanted to speak out against the collective bargaining plan and the overall budget. They were also voicing support for recall elections targeting six Republican state senators who voted for the union bill. Three Democrats are also facing recall elections.


"I just want to make it very clear that people are not behind this budget," said Tanya Lohr, a 38-year-old high school teacher from West Bend.


Pat Onsager, a special-education teacher from Madison, said he wasn't sure whether his protesting would make a difference but he came out anyway because he couldn't be passive as an injustice developed in his state.


"It's power to the people," said Onsager, 44. "If I'm not here, how am I supposed to raise my kids and teach them to do the right thing?"


While the court's ruling negated the need for the Assembly to vote on the entire collective bargaining proposal again, it was still looking at a new exemption for transit workers.


The collective bargaining law requires all public employees to pay more for their health care and pension benefits, which on average amounts to an 8 percent pay cut. It also takes away all collective bargaining rights except for negotiating pay raises no greater than inflation, though police, firefighters and the state patrol retained their bargaining rights.


Under a change expected to be considered Tuesday, local transit workers primarily bus drivers would be exempt so the state wouldn't risk losing about $46 million in federal aid that's dependent on those employees retaining their bargaining rights.


In a surprise announcement just before lawmakers were to begin debate, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin announced she would leave her post this summer to become president of Amherst College in Massachusetts. Martin had closely aligned herself with Walker on a plan to break the Madison campus off from the rest of the UW system.


The proposal sharply divided both the Madison campus and the university system, with the other campuses and UW President Kevin Reilly coming out against it. Lawmakers never got behind it, and it was removed from the budget before it was advanced for debate.


Associated Press Writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report.

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