The showdown over collective bargaining rights for public employees is just the first step in a contentious debate over how to solve Wisconsin's budget woes, with newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker also seeking to dismantle an array of social policies enacted under his Democratic predecessor.
On the chopping block in Walker's two-year budget proposal are early release programs for prisoners, in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, mandatory insurance coverage of contraceptives, college financial aid for high school grads who are good citizens and public financing for Supreme Court campaigns.
All were enacted under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle _ some after the promise to save the state money, others after years of lobbying from interest groups who now find themselves on the wrong side of Wisconsin's political power.
"It just looks like they want to erase what happened in the last two years," said Mike McCabe, director of the independent watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "It's just so striking how divided the two parties are right now and how Wisconsin is flipping back and forth wildly from one extreme to another. There doesn't seem to be any political middle that's able to moderate these violent mood swings."
Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor's proposed cuts are needed as the state struggles to balance its budget.
"This budget proposal maintains funding for core government services, institutes cost saving reforms and brings the overall cost of government back in line with taxpayer's ability to pay," Werwie said.
Republican state Rep. Robin Vos, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee, said Wisconsin's voters "gave us a mandate to turn the ship around."
The changes sought in Walker's budget released earlier this month are separate from the proposal in Walker's emergency budget bill to take away collective bargaining rights, except over salary up to inflation, for nearly all public workers. That proposal motivated all 14 state Senate Democrats to flee to Illinois, where they remained on Tuesday as the Senate met without them. Until at least one comes back, there can be no vote on the collective bargaining bill.
"I'm convinced that we'll eventually be back and we'll be working on the budget and other matters, but I can't tell you when," said Democratic Sen. Fred Risser.
The governor's office on Tuesday released e-mails that show communication with Democratic senators over possible changes to the bill, including removing any limits on bargaining over salary and allowing other items to be part of the bargaining process.
The state faces a $3.6 billion budget shortfall that Walker points to as the rationale for many of the cuts he's proposing. But not everything he wants to do would save the state money.
Walker wants to repeal an inmate early release program enacted two years ago and revert to a 1999 truth-in-sentencing law he sponsored as an Assembly member that requires prisoners to serve their entire sentence without time taken off for good behavior. Doyle had touted the early release program as a way to both save money and relieve prison crowding.
As of last week, Wisconsin had granted early release to 479 prisoners, 14 of whom later returned to prison after being accused of new crimes or supervision violations, according to the Department of Corrections.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who was the deputy corrections secretary when the early release law was implemented, said the potential financial savings could be immense but the biggest benefit was to the prison environment.
"People were now behaving themselves and were now trying to get involved in programs that would better themselves" so they could get of prison a few weeks or months early, Ozanne said. "It is somewhat disappointing if it is just yanked out."
Walker's budget plan also would ax a Democratic initiative approved under Doyle that grants in-state college tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants, so long as the students have graduated from a Wisconsin high school and lived in the state for at least three years. The students also have to sign an affidavit promising to pursue legal residency or citizenship.
Fewer than two dozen of the 182,000 students in the University of Wisconsin system have used the program, said university spokesman David Giroux. The Wisconsin Technical College System did an informal survey last fall of how many undocumented immigrants were paying instate tuition, "and there were virtually none," said spokeswoman Morna Foy.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the director of the Milwaukee-based immigrants' rights group Voces de la Frontera, called the proposed repeal of the law "offensive," "disgraceful" and "really shameful."
Walker is also targeting a high-profile program in which eighth or ninth grade students who sign a pledge to get good grades and be good citizens are guaranteed a place in a Wisconsin college or university and some financial aid. The first students who signed the pledge will begin college this fall and once fully operational there could be more than 70,000 students could be a part of it.
Under Walker's proposal, no more students could sign up for the program after this year.
Walker would also gut funding for public financing for Supreme Court campaigns, a law passed in 2009. Both candidates in the April 5 election are taking the public financing and abiding by the spending limits under the new law. Walker wants to make it a voluntary tax return check-off, which would far limit the amount of public financing available.
The governor would also eliminate a 2009 law mandating insurers cover contraception, something supporters had fought for years to get passed. And, he would do away with a 21-year-old law requiring Wisconsin communities to recycle. That program was started under a Republic predecessor, Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Walker is also wading into the fierce debate over whether to untie the Madison campus from the University of Wisconsin System, which was established in 1971 with the merger of the state's two public university systems. Members of the board of regents and the head of the Assembly's higher education committee oppose the move, fearing it will lead to high tuition increases.
But Biddy Martin, chancellor of the Madison campus, supports the split as a way to give the flagship campus more flexibility and autonomy.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.