A dramatic political showdown is underway in Wisconsin over painful budget cuts that threaten thousands of state employees. Even President Obama has injected himself into the growing fracas.
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions,” Obama told Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV in a White House interview Wednesday.
“The idea is to sit down and negotiate,” said state Sen. Mark Miller, who fled Wisconsin yesterday in an effort to delay a vote that would curb the state’s unions and force them to contribute more for benefits. “We’ve heard over a thousand people testify about the impact this is going to have on their lives. It’s heartbreaking, people break down in tears. This is a disaster and we’re being asked to swallow it in just four days.”
Last night, more public workers, including firefighters, poured in to the capital, in a third day of protests that have brought tens of thousands to Madison. Some families camped out overnight in a last-ditch effort to protest budget cuts they fear would cripple their union rights.
“I want to do anything in my power to raise awareness that this can’t happen,” said one protestor.
On Thursday, Republicans were poised to pass an austerity budget requiring state workers to pay more for pensions and health care.
But what really has protestors steamed is a dramatic move by the Republican governor to eliminate union bargaining on everything from wages to work rules.
“He’s trying to dictate what we’ll do, how we’ll do it, when it’ll be done,” said Deborah Caldwell, a teacher.
“It’s about stripping away our rights to have a union,” said a local union steward identified as Aniel.
So the 14 Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote, and prevent Wisconsin police from rounding them up.
“The state police jurisdiction stops at the state border so that’s why we had to leave the state. It’s not like we wanted to do this,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
“We feel that by delaying the vote for awhile, the people of the state will have more opportunity to talk about this issue,” said Sen. Jim Holperin.
“I think it’s time for them to come home and do their job,” said Gov. Scott Walker, who unveiled the budget bill only last Saturday.
Walker, faced with a $3.6 billion deficit, denies he is trying to bust the unions.
“The bottom line is we’re broke. We can’t negotiate for something we don’t have the ability to give on,” said Walker.
But Miller sees Walker making tax breaks elsewhere.
“The early part of the legislator the governor declared a special session of which he created $140 million in tax breaks for corporations in Wisconsin,” said Miller.
Wisconsin has a $137 million shortfall this year and $3.6 billion over the next two years.
Miller says he is trying to protect people’s jobs.
“This governor has proposed in a mere four days to strip away people’s rights on the pretext of a budget crisis. It’s a crisis entirely of his own making. He’s using this as a way to strip away longstanding of Wisconsin history of how we work with employees,” said Miller.
The governor is trying to take away collective bargaining rights, which he says is necessary to avoid furloughs and by doing so he will guarantee that no one will be laid off. He wants public workers to contribute more to their healthcare and pension plans.
“The workers of Wisconsin have always been willing to work with the governor when they face a crisis, whether it’s a national disaster or a fiscal crisis. They did it at the last session, they took furloughs and a 3 percent pay cut, they would do it again. The really insulting thing is that the governor never ever asked them.
“He just introduced this law last week and he expected it to be passed yesterday. It’s unacceptable. It’s not the way we do things in Wisconsin, it’s not the American way,” said Miller.
“We had a much bigger deficit at the end of the Bush recession that hit our state and every state like a thunderclap. It was a $6.6 billion deficit. And we solved that. The employees stepped up to it, they took a furlough, a 3 percent pay cut, which helped,” he added.
Meanwhile, the historic standoff here continues until at least one Democrat returns to the state Senate.
“I think we’re a little kabuki theatre at this point things are going to come to and a conclusion in the next couple days,” said Ken Goldstein, a political science professor University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Once the Democrats come back, they are likely to lose the vote, in spite of all the protestors here. Other governors facing similar budget crises are watching Wisconsin carefully.
“We hope that the governor will respect the workers of Wisconsin and maintain the longstanding tradition of sitting down and negotiating issues, sitting down and treating people like human beings, like human beings that provide such valuable public services. That’s our goal,” said Miller.
All eyes are on Wisconsin, but several other state budgets are on the brink. Over 40 states are facing a combined projected shortfall of $125 billion for the fiscal year of 2012. The hardest hit are California, facing a $25.5 billion gap, Texas at $13 billion, Illinois at $15 billion, New York $9 billion and New Jersey at $10.5 billion.
Source ABC News