Wisconsin Governor Rescinds Layoff Notices

Friday, 11 March 2011 14:14 By Monica Davey and AG Sulzberger, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Madison, Wis. - Gov. Scott Walker announced on Friday that he was rescinding layoff notices for 1,500 state workers after Wisconsin lawmakers approved his plan to cut collective bargaining rights and benefits for public employees. The approval, after nearly a month of angry demonstrations and procedural maneuvering, will create enough budget savings, Mr. Walker said, that layoffs will not be needed now.

"While tough budget choices certainly still lie ahead, both state and local units of government will not have to do any mass layoffs or direct service reductions because of the reforms contained in the budget repair bill," Mr. Walker said in a statement Friday morning. "Moving forward, the hardworking, professional public sector employees who show up to work every day and do an excellent job will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."

The threat of layoffs had been just one in a series of chapters in the battle Mr. Walker had waged, and, on Thursday, won. He signed the bill Friday morning and planned a news conference for later in the day.

But his victory, after the State Assembly passed the bill, also carries risks for the state's Republicans who swept into power in November.

Democratic-leaning voters appeared energized by the battle over collective bargaining on a national stage. The fight has already spurred a list of potential recall elections for state lawmakers this spring. Protesters are planning more large demonstrations this weekend.

"From a policy perspective, this is terrible," said Mike Tate, the leader of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

"But from a political perspective, he could not have handed us a bigger gift," Mr. Tate said of the governor.

In the last 24 hours, he added, the state party had received $360,000 in contributions and volunteers have streamed into offices where signatures were being collected for recall bids.

Robert Jauch said Friday morning that he was among several Senate Democrats who had returned home from Illinois, where they have been living since last month when they fled to prevent a quorum. He said they planned to hold a rally in Madison on Saturday.

The Republican-dominated Assembly voted mainly along party lines, 53 to 42 in favor of the bill, during a tense and bitter proceeding punctuated by shouts of "No!" from angry lawmakers, cries of "Shame, shame!" from protesters in the gallery, and chants from thousands outside the locked-down chamber.

The vote had been delayed after law enforcement completely closed the Capitol for a time, when protesters filled a section near the Assembly hall and refused to leave. Some demonstrators were carried out.

Some lawmakers were locked out, and the police ignored their pleas to let them in so they could vote. They resorted to climbing in through first-floor windows.

The tenor of the debate took an angrier edge this week because of the legislative brinkmanship that helped get the bill passed.

Republicans complained that Senate Democrats had brought state business to a halt for nearly three weeks by fleeing the state and preventing a quorum.

The Democrats fumed that the Republicans had ended the episode in less than a day, with the Democrats still out of town, by forcing a rewritten bill that needed no quorum through the Senate on Wednesday night and the Assembly on Thursday. Though the outcome of the vote was all but certain, each side made its case one more time in the final hours of debate.

On the floor of the Assembly, Jeff Fitzgerald, the Republican speaker, said the state's finances were on a "crash course" if collective bargaining remained the status quo. "We ran on this," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We were going to get the fiscal place in order. This is the first piece of the puzzle. We're broke."

Democrats, who noted that public-sector union leaders had already agreed to pay more for their pensions and health care costs, argued that slashing collective bargaining rights was no budget-saving measure, but a way to break unions in a state with deep labor roots.

Peter Barca, the Democrats' Assembly leader, railed against the Republicans' tactics. "Our democracy is out of control in Wisconsin," Mr. Barca said. "And you all know it — you can feel it."

Political analysts said they would watch for the fallout of the Wisconsin vote, and whether it would affect similar battles now playing out over collective bargaining issues in statehouses elsewhere, including Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana.

Republicans here, including Governor Walker, contend that Wisconsin residents were seeking change in the election last fall — when the state made one of the starkest flips in the nation from blue to red — and that this was just the sort of bold move they would ultimately embrace.

Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the state Republican Party, said he felt Democrats had been particularly loud in their protests to send a warning shot to the other states considering such measures.

But Democrats say the collective bargaining fight may lead to a political shakeup in the Capitol, where more than a dozen senators, Republicans and Democrats, are now the subjects of heated recall efforts. That in turn could shift political equations, since Wisconsin has long been a presidential battleground, for the 2012 election.

"The voters absolutely sent a message that they wanted fiscal conservatism," said Michael B. Wittenwyler, a lawyer who once served as a campaign strategist for Democrats like Russ Feingold, the senator who lost his seat last fall. "Now they learned what that really means and I think they're saying, 'Hmmm, maybe that's not what we really want.' "

Others, though, wondered whether the protests might fade.

"If things go back to normal and Wisconsin continues to improve economically, balances its budgets, bring jobs, there probably won't be a lot of pain for Republicans down the road," said Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who used to be a campaign manager for Republicans like Tommy Thompson, the former governor, and is a supporter of Governor Walker. "I think things will get back to normal for the average Wisconsin citizen, but it's going to take some time, though, before government employees get over this," he added.

For the moment, the wounds remained raw and personal in a Capitol where politics have long been more polite than intensely partisan.

A number of legislators told law enforcement authorities that they had received death threats, an Assembly spokesman said. And Democrats in the Assembly tried, briefly, to have Mr. Fitzgerald removed as speaker for what they said was his "incredibly impaired" judgment.

Democrats said they planned to seek legal recourse for what they viewed as violations of the state's open meetings rules. Republicans had announced a meeting to present their rewritten bill (the one that would not require a quorum) less than two hours before the meeting took place on Wednesday evening.

Democrats said 24 hours was required, except in cases of emergencies. But Republicans said that amount of time was not needed during special legislative sessions and that they needed to provide only enough time to, say, post a scheduled meeting on a legislative bulletin board.

At least some of the Senate Democrats — who have been gone from Wisconsin since Feb. 17 and have become known to some here, admiringly, as the "Wisconsin 14" — refused to even return to the state on Thursday.

Senators like Fred Risser, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1956, said he was concerned that the Republicans might have some other legislative trick in mind if the Democrats came back to the Capitol right away. "Why would I trust them now?" Mr. Risser asked.

Outside the Capitol Building itself, though, many teachers, state workers and others were taking stock of what the entire episode would now mean for their lives.

The bill significantly alters most public-sector union rules, limiting bargaining to matters of wages and limiting raises to changes in the Consumer Price Index unless the public approves higher raises in a referendum.

It ends the state's collection of union dues from paychecks, and requires most unions to hold votes annually to determine whether most workers still wish to be members. Firefighters and law enforcement personnel will be exempt from those changes.

As the sun set, a crowd again gathered for yet another rally.

Peggy Coyne, a middle school teacher, predicted more big crowds, more rallies, more protest. "We'll keep our presence known here," she said. "I think they felt there would be a little fuss and we'd go away. But this continues to get bigger and bigger."

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting from Chicago, and Steven Greenhouse and Timothy Williams from New York.

This article "Wisconsin Governor Rescinds Layoff Notices" originally appeared at The New York Times.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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Last modified on Friday, 11 March 2011 14:19