By Kevin Lee Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — With more than a hundred union supporters protesting just outside his office, Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday announced he would not budge on eliminating most collective bargaining rights from public employees.
Walker introduced a budget repair bill focused on adjusting the state’s budget until July but drew the ire of public employee unions by eliminating their ability to negotiate on matters such as health care benefits, pensions and vacation time.
In a news conference in the Wisconsin Capitol, the governor reiterated that the move would give state and local governments maximum flexibility to manage their budgets.
“As an elected official at the local level for more than eight years, I can tell you, (you) can’t pass a budget on a hope and a prayer that every school district, county board, town board, city council is somehow magically going to reach the same conclusion when it comes to concessions,” he said.
Walker called on Senate Democrats to come back to the Capitol after Democrats fled the state in order to delay the vote on his budget repair proposal. The governor criticized the move as a “stunt.”
Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the state Senate but need at least one Democrat to be present in the Senate chamber in order to take a vote on a budget matter.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he talked to Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, via phone on Thursday.
“They don’t work for the governor,” Barca said in reference to Senate Democrats. “They work for the citizens of this state. And they feel the citizens of this state want to take a little more time (to consider Walker’s bill).”
Barca said the state Senate is likely to take action first, but would not comment on whether Democratic representatives would initiate a walkout.
The state Senate adjourned for Thursday and would reconvene Friday if Democrats returned.
The Department of Administration estimates 25,000 people visited the Capitol and reported nine arrests as of Thursday afternoon, most of those due to disorderly conduct, according to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney.
Mahoney said patrolmen from more than a dozen state and local law enforcement agencies were working together to maintain the safety of Capitol protesters and state officials.
“We understand we’re dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods,” he said. “We’re exercising extreme measures of tolerance.”
Thursday marked the most vociferous day of peaceful demonstrations yet, with police establishing a one-block, no-traffic barrier outside the Capitol for most of the day.
More than 20 school districts announced closures late Wednesday night after hundreds of teachers called in sick at the request of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a state teacher’s union.
Protests have been escalating in noise and number of participants since last Friday, when Walker first announced his budget repair bill.