Political chaos gripped Wisconsin on Thursday as 25,000 protesters jammed the hallways and sidewalks in around the state Capitol for the third straight day to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s measures to overhaul state workers’ pension plans and collective bargaining rights. The unpopular bill even had some Democratic lawmakers on the run, 14 of which fled the state to block the legislation from moving forward.
Republicans hold a 19 to 14 majority in the Senate, but they need at least one Democrat to be present before voting on the bill. Walker, who took office just last month, called on Democrats to return out of respect for the democratic process and the institution of the Legislature, and dispatched law enforcement officials to try to round them up. "Their actions by leaving the state and hiding from voting are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent," Walker said.
It was a day of high drama in Madison, the state capital, and underscored the growing tensions over efforts to balance state budgets in the face of massive unfunded pension liabilities, rising Medicaid costs and diminished tax revenues brought on by one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. State tax collections, adjusted for inflation, are now 12 percent below pre-recession levels, while the need for state-funded services has not declined. Some 45 states and the District of Columbia are projecting budget shortfalls for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1, 2011 in most states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Despite two days of demonstrations at the state Capitol, Walker says he will forge ahead with plans requiring public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, effectively cutting the take-home pay of many by around 7 percent. He also wants to weaken most public sector unions by curtailing their collective bargaining rights, limiting talks to the subject of basic wages. President Obama said today that the governor’s proposals “seem more like an assault on unions.”
As Republicans tried to begin state Senate business Thursday, observers in the gallery screamed "Freedom! Democracy! Unions!" Opponents cheered when a legislative leader announced there were not enough senators present to proceed, according to the Associated Press. The sergeant-at-arms immediately began looking for the missing lawmakers. If he cannot find them, he's authorized to seek help, including potentially contacting police.
The spectacle of Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state capital to avoid having to act on a controversial GOP measure is reminiscent of the 2003 donnybrook in Texas, when Governor Rick Perry called a special legislative session to push through plan designed to clear the way for the first Republican majority in the U.S. House since Reconstruction. Eleven out of twelve of the Democratic Senators left for Albuquerque, New Mexico to prevent the quorum, and were nicknamed the Texas Eleven.
Wis. Labor activists begin 3rd day of protests (Deseret News)
US Public Sector Cuts Spark Protests in Wisconsin (Voice of America)
Thousands protest anti-union bill in Wisconsin (Yahoo News)