Wisconsin layoffs loom amid budget impasse

Reuters News
|
Posted: Mar 21, 2011 2:58 PM

By Jeff Mayers

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Hopes for a last-minute deal to stop layoff notices for 1,500 Wisconsin state workers faded on Friday as a standoff over public union bargaining rights hardened and more demonstrations were expected.

A key Wisconsin senate Democrat said Republican governor Scott Walker was "intent on prolonging the impasse" rather than compromising on his proposal, which last week sparked the biggest local protest march since the Vietnam War. It has also become the epicenter of a national debate on union rights.

Opponents of Walker's plan were planning more weekend protests across the state, one of several in the Midwest where unionized public employees have found themselves targeted by Republican lawmakers looking to fix gaping budget deficits.

But supporters of Walker's bill were also planning a statewide Wisconsin bus tour over the weekend as they try to build support for the governor's measure.

Walker's bill remains stalled in the Wisconsin Senate where all 14 Democrats fled to neighboring Illinois two weeks ago to deny the measure the quorum it needs to pass in the chamber.

Dave Hansen, one of the 14, issued a statement on Friday saying that while he had believed the two sides were making progress earlier in the week, "it has become increasingly apparent that Governor Walker is not interested in compromise, but instead appears intent on prolonging the impasse."

Behind-the-scenes negotiations have failed to produce a compromise. Just one Democrat is needed for a quorum.

Walker told reporters late on Thursday that "extremist elements" among 14 absent Democrats had blocked progress.

"Just when we think the process is moving forward, we see no action," Walker said. "We're frustrated."

Walker said some of the absent Democrats, who have been threatened with $100-a-day fines and the prospect of being arrested and taken to the Senate if they return to Wisconsin, appear willing to stay away "not only for several more months, but potentially the next two years."

With no action expected on the bill, Walker said he will be forced to send out layoff notices to 1,500 state employees, saving some $30 million.

"The reality is, we shouldn't have to be going down the path of preparing for layoffs." Walker said.

POTENTIAL BACKLASH?

In the Midwest, the traditional "Rust Belt" heartland of the country and home to big unionized manufacturers like the auto and steel industries, there were signs that some Republican budget "hawks" were taking caution from Wisconsin.

A poll by Rasmussen Reports on Friday of 800 Wisconsin voters on March 2 found 34 percent strongly approved of Walker's performance as governor, while 48 percent strongly disapproved. Walker was elected with a 52 percent majority last November.

In Ohio, where legislators are considering even more stringent curbs on unions, the Republican leader of the state's House of Representatives decided on Friday to hold at least three weeks of debate on a bill -- a setback for its backers.

Republican Gov. John Kasich had hoped to enact Senate Bill 5 by March 15 when he is scheduled to unveil his two-year budget proposal for fiscal 2012-2013.

The vote in the Ohio Senate on Wednesday was 17 to 16 with six Republicans joining Democrats in voting against.

In Indiana, where 38 Democrats have also fled the state to delay a vote on bills they say would harm workers' rights, Republicans on Friday voted to impose a $250-a-day fine starting on Monday for members who aren't on the House floor.

Protests against the Wisconsin bill, which would eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights for most of the state's 300,000 public employees, included a two-week-long occupation of the state Capitol building.

That sit-in ended on Thursday night as a result of a court order that also lifted restrictions Walker's office had imposed on the public's access to the building. Some Democratic lawmakers set up desks outside to meet with constituents.

But tempers are fraying. On Thursday night, TV cameras caught police officers first refusing Rep. Nick Milroy, a Democrat, entry into the Capitol building and then one tackling him when he attempted to go inside anyway.

Police and Milroy later said it was a misunderstanding. A judge's order on Friday lifted some of the stricter rules restrictions on entering the building that officials had put in place after the two-week sit-in by protesters.

Walker's budget repair bill increases worker contributions to their pensions and health care and Walker said it provides tools for local governments to cut expenses, reducing the need for layoffs in the current fiscal year.

The group Americans for Prosperity said on Friday they will do a "Stand Against Spending, Stand With Walker" bus tour around Wisconsin on Saturday in support Walker's plan, with a rally planned for Sunday in Madison but not at the Capitol.

Opponents including the AFL-CIO and other unions said they will continue to organize protests at the Capitol on Saturday and Sunday along with smaller events throughout the state.

(Additional reporting by Susan Guyett in Indianapolis and Jim Lekrone in Columbus. Editing by Andrew Stern and Peter Bohan)