In a stunning move, the state Senate Wednesday night passed a revised version of Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill - without Democratic senators returning to vote on the measure.
Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, cast the lone vote in dissent of the bill. The Democratic senators remained in Illinois and did not vote on the bill, which strips public unions' rights to collectively bargain for benefits.
For weeks, Senate Democrats have remained out of state to block a vote on the controversial measure. However, Republicans on Wednesday modified the bill so that it only needed a simple majority to pass — not the 20 votes that the original bill required.
The revised measure was approved by an 18-1 vote.
The bill is expected to be voted on by the GOP-controlled Assembly on Thursday. If approved, it would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees and would require them to pay more of their health care and pension costs.
“The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused,” Walker said in a statement. “In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature’s action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs.”
The bill’s passage quickly drew the criticism of Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, who issued a statement say that in 30 minutes, the 18 Republican senators who voted for the bill undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin.
“Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten,” Miller said in the statement. “Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people.
“We will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.”
Under the state legislation, collective bargaining is limited to wages for public unions. The wages can’t increase consumer price index-based cap, according to a news release from Walker. The cap could be exceeded by referendum.
The union contracts are limited to a year and wages frozen until new contract is settled.
Law enforcement, fire department personnel and state troopers and inspectors are not affected by the proposed legislation.
Other issues that are in the bill include requiring state employees to contribute 5.8 percent toward their pension and 12 percent toward their health care benefits. That move would save the state $30 million as it looks to plug a $137 million budget deficit by the end of June, according to the news release.
Schultz said in a prepared statement that he received tens of thousands of e-mails, thousands of phone calls and spent hours meeting with his constituents who told him they wanted two things.
“First, be inclusive by listening and working with your colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reach a compromise which addresses our fiscal crisis,” Schultz said. “Second, public employees are willing to make sacrifices on things like wages and benefits, but we need to preserve collective bargaining as a tool which has helped keep labor peace in this state for decades.
“Ultimately, I voted (with) my conscience, which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues in the days ahead as we now need to join together to work through what promises to be a difficult budget.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement that the action take by the Senate followed the law after confirming the legality of the items in the bill with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Bureau.
“The people of Wisconsin elected us to come to Madison and do a job,” he said. “Just because the Senate Democrats won’t do theirs, doesn’t mean we won’t do ours.”
Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) said she voted for the bill because “something needs to be done to balance the budget… and avoid large-scale layoffs of public employees.”
Passing the amended bill will prevent layoffs, Lazich said.
Lazich argued that the Democrats “ignored repeated efforts to negotiate on the bill.
But Democrats objected to the hastily scheduled vote and its sweeping impacts.
“In the dead of night and in less than 30 minutes, the Senate eviscerated over 50 years of collective bargaining and labor peace in this state,” said Sen. Fred Risser, a Democrat from Madison.
He questioned the legality of the vote, whether it violated state open meetings laws and said it amounted to “nothing more than an abuse of power.”
Sen. Julie Lassa, a Democrat from Stevens Point, called the vote a “truly sad night for Wisconsin democracy.”
“Deaf to the pleas of the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin citizens, Governor Walker and Republican legislators have demonstrated absolute contempt for the democratic process. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
A Green Bay senator, Dave Hansen, called his Republican counterparts “morally bankrupt” and predicted the move would lead to their ouster from office.
“Their actions are reckless, repulsive, unnecessary and mean-spirited,” Hansen said.