Wisconsin lawmakers take up bill to cripple unions

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - With their Senate colleagues still in hiding, Democrats in theWisconsin Assembly began introducing a barrage of 100 amendmentsTuesday to try to stymie the Republican governor's plan to stripunionized public employees of most of their bargaining rights.

Both houses of the GOP-controlled Legislature convened shortlybefore noon amid noisy protests outside the state Capitol thatbegan more than a week ago in an epic showdown that is beingwatched nervously by organized labor across the country.

The Senate was unable to take up the union measure because its14 Democrats skipped town last week, denying the chamber a quorum.But Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald pledged that his chamber wouldapprove the bill this week, despite the blizzard of Democraticamendments.

Turning up the pressure on the Democrats, Gov. Scott Walkerwarned that state employees could start receiving layoff notices asearly as next week if the bill isn't passed soon. The layoffscouldn't take effect immediately - existing union contracts couldforestall them for weeks or months - and Walker wouldn't say whichjobs he would go after first.

"Hopefully we don't get to that point," the governor said in astatement.

Borrowing the strategy pioneered by President Franklin D.Roosevelt, Walker planned to take his case straight to the votersTuesday evening with a fireside chat. In excerpts released inadvance by Walker's office, the governor said his bill is aboutbalancing the budget now and into the future and nothing else. Hecommended Wisconsin for "showing the rest of the country how tohave a passionate yet civil debate about our finances."

Walker also praised public employees - thousands of whom havebeen calling for his resignation for more than a week - saying hehas a "great respect for those who have chosen a career ingovernment."

While Wisconsin remained the main front in the national debateover union rights, similar battles were taking shape in otherstates. In Indiana, House Democrats walked out of the Statehouse onTuesday, blocking a GOP-backed bill against mandatory union dues.Only three of the 40 Democratic members of the chamber werepresent, depriving it of a quorum.

A similar debate in Ohio drew thousands of union protestersTuesday, prompting officials there to lock the doors to theStatehouse.

In Wisconsin, if lawmakers take no action on the union bill bythe end of the week, the state will not be able to refinance debtthat Walker had counted on for $165 million worth of savings underthe legislation. The governor warned that not doing that wouldforce even deeper cuts and possibly lead to 1,500 layoffs byJuly.

Republican leaders in both the Senate and Assembly said theyhave the votes to pass the bill.

Fitzgerald said the bill was a key part of the Republican agendato cut government spending that won the GOP majorities in theLegislature in November.

"When you talk about a compromise, no. We're going to make areform," the Assembly speaker said.

Debate began in the Assembly with the Democrats introducingamendments that would do such things as restore public employees'right to strike and submit the bill to a referendum before it couldtake effect. Given the number of amendments Democrats wereproposing, an actual vote on the measure may not happen untilWednesday or later.

"It's going to be a long day," Democratic Minority Leader PeterBarca said at the start of debate. "Tempers are going toflare."

He was right. Two Democrats lashed out at Republican lawmakersand aides for laughing at them during the debate.

"This is not a game! We're dealing with people's lives! Thisisn't funny!" Rep. Andy Jorgensen shouted in the chamber, his facered. "I haven't laughed in a long time, especially not on a daylike this!"

Rep. Cory Mason, a former organizer for the American Federationof Teachers, said Wisconsin has enjoyed more than 50 years of laborpeace between state and local public employees and their bossesafter passing collective bargaining rights in 1959.

"What the governor is proposing and what the majority isproposing today is to break that labor peace," he said.

The roar of protesters in the Capitol rotunda, many of whom werebanging on drums and chanting through megaphones, could be heardwhile both the Senate and Assembly met.

The Wisconsin bill would force state and local public workers tocontribute more toward their pensions and health care and wouldstrip them of the right to negotiate benefits and workingconditions. They would largely be limited to negotiating pay raisesno greater than the inflation rate.

The proposal, designed to help Wisconsin plug a projected $3.6billion hole in the budget, has led to eight straight days ofmonumental protests that grew as large as 68,000 people onSaturday.

Democrats railed against the bill during early debate ofamendments that proposed doing everything from restoring publicworkers' right to strike and requiring approval in a publicreferendum before the law could take effect.

The Senate was stymied for a second time in its attempts to takeup the bill after none of the 14 Democrats who skipped town onThursday showed up. Under Senate rules, 20 lawmakers must bepresent to take up a budget bill. There are only 19Republicans.

Unable to act on Walker's proposal, the remaining Republicansinstead took up some non-controversial measures, voting to extendtax breaks to dairy farmers and unanimously commending the GreenBay Packers on winning the Super Bowl. The Senate does not need aquorum to deal with non-budget matters.

Unlike last Thursday, when the Senate galleries were filled withprotesters who disrupted action by shouting, only about a dozenpeople showed up under heavier security to watch the action onTuesday.

In the Assembly, the gallery was packed with hundreds ofspectators who watched the debate without causing any disruption.Democrats wore orange shirts to show solidarity with protestersthat read, "Fighting for working families." Thousands more peoplewatched the debate on TV monitors inside the rotunda.

Walker and Republican leaders have repeatedly called on theSenate Democrats, who fled to Illinois, to return and get back towork. Democrats have said they won't come back until Walker iswilling to negotiate.

"We'd love to come back today," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach. "Wecould be up there this afternoon and pass this if he would agree toremoving the language that has absolutely nothing to do withbalancing the budget."

Packers star Charles Woodson and two other players, along withfive former team members, have come out against the bill.


Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed to thisreport.