POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 23, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 4:22 a.m. HST, Feb 23, 2011
MILWAUKEE >> Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson packed just his toothbrush and one extra shirt as he and 13 fellow Democrats fled the state to avoid near certain passage of the Republican governor's contentious plan to strip government workers of their collective bargaining rights.
"That tells you, I didn't think it would take this long," Larson said by telephone Tuesday from somewhere in Illinois.
Nearly a week later, the stalemate persists at the Capitol in Madison, and the union rights protests that started there have spread to other states — even sparking a similar Democratic walkout in Indiana that also blocked a vote on labor legislation.
The 14 wayward Wisconsin lawmakers have given no hint about when they might return, even amid recall threats, a Senate recommendation to make them pick up their paychecks in person and the GOP-controlled Legislature returning to work this week on other business without them. Gov. Scott Walker says if they don't come back soon, they will be responsible for thousands of state workers losing their jobs because Wisconsin won't be able to refinance its debt.
Even as the Assembly prepares to approve Walker's plan this week, the Senate can't take it up because the 14 Democrats are needed for a quorum.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Democrats came up with the idea to flee during a strategy meeting last Thursday morning, and an hour later they grabbed some clothes and toiletries and headed for Illinois. Erpenbach's uncle took him shopping for extra pants and underwear, but he says that is only a temporary fix.
"I'll have to grab a roll of quarters and find a Laundromat," he said.
The lawmakers emphasized that their time away is no vacation. The say they spend their days hard at work — handling district business through their staffs, monitoring the Capitol protests, talking to the media and answering constituents' e-mails.
Their walkout is reminiscent of a 2003 confrontation in Texas, where Democrats who were outnumbered in a battle over congressional redistricting boarded a bus and fled for the Oklahoma border. Their goal was 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.
Four Democrats who were reached by The Associated Press said none of their daily expenses would be charged to taxpayers, and none will accept any per diem funds. Larson did say his hotel room Monday was paid for by the State Senate Democratic Campaign. He said the group might pay for more nights depending on how long he stays.
Others have donated food, he said, but he declined to name them.
"Let's just say the senators have friends over here who've been more than generous in sharing with us," Larson said.
Sen. Tim Cullen said he already planned to donate some of his pay to a food pantry in Janesville.
That misses the point, contends one GOP lawmaker who says the Democrats shouldn't get a dime for the days they miss.
"That sounds great. I believe in supporting charity," said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. "The big difference is, these senators aren't showing up for work. They haven't earned that pay. It's the taxpayers' money."
On Tuesday, the Committee on Senate Organization raised the ante. The five-person group voted along party lines to prevent absent lawmakers from getting paid unless they pick up their paychecks in person on the Senate floor during a session.
A Utah-based group has started a process to recall several of the senators, including state Sen. Robert Wirch. American Recall Coalition filed the paperwork Tuesday with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, but it was unclear what chances it had. Wirch said he is unswayed.
"I'm listening to people in my district and they're overwhelmingly against the governor's anti-worker initiative," he said.
Walker says his proposal is critical because Wisconsin faces a projected $3.6 billion budget hole. It would force public workers to pay more for their benefits beyond eliminating most bargaining, However, the measure outraged union workers, prompting eight straight days of massive protests in the Capitol that grew as large as 68,000 people on Saturday.
Wirch, who said he's using paid vacation time to cover his absence, hopes the vocal protests in the Capitol will eventually sway support to the Democrats.
"I'm hopeful that public opinion will prevail on this administration," he said. "Clearly I think public opinion is overwhelmingly on my side. That gives me hope at some point the Republicans will forget about ideology and listen to the voices of the people."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.