Wisconsin Democrats could stay away for weeks - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Wisconsin Democrats could stay away for weeks


MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democrats on the run in Wisconsin avoided state troopers Friday and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks, potentially paralyzing the state government in a standoff with majority Republicans over union rights for public employees.

Democrats also scored a victory in the state Assembly, which adjourned until at least Tuesday without voting on a proposal that seeks to ease the state's budget woes by cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers, prison guards and many other workers.

The party's battle against the legislation is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall's GOP wave.

But the dramatic strategy that has clogged the Capitol with thousands of protesters clashes with one essential truth: Republicans told everyone months ago that unions would be one of their targets, and the GOP now has more than enough votes to pass its plans once the Legislature can convene.

The 14 Senate Democrats left the state Thursday, delaying action in that chamber on the sweeping bill. Among them was Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who said Friday that the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would prefer to end the stalemate sooner.

"That really, truly is up to the governor," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at a downtown Chicago hotel. "It's his responsibility to bring the state together. The state is not unified. It is totally torn part."

Meanwhile, protests at the state Capitol entered a fourth day and continued to grow -- to an estimated 40,000 people, the largest crowd yet. Many schools were closed again after teachers called in sick, including the state's largest district, in Milwaukee.

And neither protesters, Democrats or the GOP appeared ready to make any accommodations for the other side.

Even though the Assembly adjourned, Republican Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald insisted he has the votes to approve the measure next week.

"This is not a win," said Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chairman of the budget committee that has already endorsed the plan. "This is just a reality we're living with. ... The bill's still moving forward."

Republicans aborted an attempt to hold a final vote on the bill without Democrats, who had been in a closed caucus meeting. Democrats sprinted into the chamber yelling to stop the vote, and the GOP leadership retreated.

Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca called it a huge victory because the delay will only increase pressure on Republicans to alter the bill.

"You can't ignore this sustained and inspirational outpouring of people who are demanding changes," he said.

Protester Carrie Dainty said the delay made her hopeful. "They'll be back on Tuesday, and we'll be here until Tuesday," she said.

New Republican Gov. Scott Walker called on Senate Democrats to "come home" and rebuffed requests to sit down with them to seek a compromise.

Erpenbach (URP'-ehn-bahk) accused Walker of trying to rush the legislation, which was publicly unveiled only a week ago.

"I'm not calling him a dictator. But this is dictatorial almost," Erpenbach said. "I don't think I've ever seen such a draconian piece of legislation come down from any governor, Democrat or Republican."

Republicans had warned since last year's campaign that they would seek major concessions from unions. But for lawmakers in the minority, "The only other option we had to slow things down was to leave," Erpenbach said.

The decision to flee happened on the spur of the moment as Democrats gathered Thursday morning near the Capitol for a regular strategy meeting, he said.

An hour later, he threw a toothbrush, razor and some clothes into a duffel bag and a backpack and jumped into a car, heading for a prearranged meeting at a hotel in Rockford, Ill., just south of the Wisconsin border.

The lawmakers were concerned that police could have detained them, even though the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits the arrest of state lawmakers while the Legislature is in session, except in cases of felonies, breaches of the peace or treason.

From Rockford, the legislators headed in different directions, most of them traveling to the Chicago area or to other parts of northern Illinois, Erpenbach said.

Since leaving Wisconsin, he said he had not spoken to any of his Republican counterparts.

Also Friday, the leader of the state's largest public employee union said workers were willing to make financial concessions but not to give up bargaining rights.

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, issued a statement saying the protests would continue until Walker sits down with the unions.

In a sign that the commotion might be causing other problems for the governor, Walker pushed back the release of his two-year budget plan by one week, to March 1.

The governor insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers -- including higher health insurance and pension contributions -- are necessary to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs.

Eliminating their collective bargaining rights, except over wage increases not greater than the Consumer Price Index, is necessary in order to give the state and local governments and schools flexibility to deal with upcoming cuts in state aid, Walker said.

Those arguments don't wash with Democrats who say the fight is really about political power and quashing the unions, whose members are longtime supporters of Democrats.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he spoke with Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller by phone late Thursday and asked him to bring his caucus back to Madison, but Miller refused.

By Friday morning, Fitzgerald was tired of waiting. With the governor's approval, he asked the state patrol to go to Miller's house in a Madison suburb.

Fitzgerald said he hoped a visit from the police would send a signal about the circumstances at the Capitol. Troopers knocked on Miller's door and rang his doorbell, but no one answered.

The protests are growing so large that Capitol workers cannot safely move through the halls, Fitzgerald said, calling the situation "a powder keg."

Tensions were expected to rise Saturday, when conservative tea party groups planned their own rallies.

Jeff Fitzgerald said he adjourned the Assembly on Friday out of safety concerns that he didn't specify.

The crowds have been peaceful. As of Friday, police reported just nine citations for minor offenses.

The Wisconsin walkout was similar to a 2003 confrontation in Texas, where Democrats were outnumbered by Republicans in a battle over congressional redistricting. The group got on a bus and fled for the Oklahoma border.

Former Texas state Rep. Jim Dunnam said the group had an "end game" -- they had to stay away for one week to kill the bill by running it up against a legislative deadline. But they also knew their efforts were only temporary because Republican Gov. Rick Perry would call them into special session all summer until a bill passed, which he did.

Back in Madison, some Democrats from the state Assembly went to Walker's office Friday to demand a meeting. Walker's spokesman said the governor's scheduler would get back to them.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane called the walkout in Madison the boldest action Democrats have taken since midterm elections swept Republican to power in statehouses across the country.

Walker "has been so strident that the way he's engaged . has effectively given the Democrats the high ground in terms of how they're responding," Lehane said.

"What Wisconsin is going through isn't all that different from other states," he added. "But the way it's being handled is."


Associated Press writers Todd Richmond, Dinesh Ramde and Jason Smathers in Madison; Michael Tarm in Chicago; Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas; and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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