MADISON, Wis. — A handful of Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin seemed to hold one of few paths to a compromise that could end a high-stakes stalemate over union rights that has captured the nation’s attention.
Gov. Scott Walker made clear Monday he won’t back off his proposal to effectively eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Senate Democrats who fled the state last week to delay the plan vowed not to come back to allow it to pass — even if they have to miss votes on other bills Tuesday. And union leaders said they would not let up on protests that have consumed Wisconsin’s capital city for a week and made the state the center of a national debate over the role of public employees’ unions.
That dynamic means it might take Republicans in the Legislature who believe Walker is going too far to try to break the impasse. One idea that has been floated by GOP Sen. Dale Schultz would temporarily take away bargaining rights to get through the state’s next two-year budget, then immediately restore them.
Walker rejected that idea during an interview Monday on MSNBC.
“It will never get to me because other than that one state senator, all the rest of the Republicans are firmly behind our proposal,” Walker said in the interview, calling it an unacceptable short term fix.
Walker was meeting Monday morning with Republican lawmakers.
While it’s unclear whether that would be acceptable to his colleagues, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a phone interview from the hotel room in Chicago where he’s hiding out that Schultz was brave for making the proposal. He said Schultz, of Richland Center, and five or six other Republican senators who have ties to organized labor are in the best position to get both sides to negotiate a deal.
Protesters who crowded inside the Capitol for a sixth day Sunday had a similar message. They hung a banner in the Capitol reading “Wisconsin needs 3 cou(R)ageous Senators,” referring to the number of Republicans needed to join with Democrats to block the bill.
The protesters have included teachers, who have sometimes arrived in such high numbers that their districts were forced to close due to understaffing. The Madison School District was closed Wednesday through Monday but was expected to reopen Tuesday.
Districts in central Wisconsin were also closed Monday, but that was because of 10 to 12 inches of snow. Milwaukee schools were shut down for a pre-scheduled midsemester break. Those closures, on top of Monday being a previously scheduled furlough day for state workers, could elevate the number of protesters who demonstrate in Madison.
A few dozen protesters spent the night inside the Capitol again Sunday, with many of them still huddled inside sleeping bags before 8 a.m. Monday morning. By midmorning the number of protesters, many of them banging on drums, grew to several hundred inside the building. The walls of the normally immaculate Capitol were adorned with signs urging Walker to back down, but he’s shown no willingness to compromise.
Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, on Monday accused Senate Democrats of vacationing and renewed the call for them to return and vote on the bill.
So far, there’s little evidence that lawmakers will move to compromise. “Won’t happen, won’t happen, won’t happen,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. The Juneau Republican said he spoke with every member of his caucus over the weekend and they remained “rock solid” in their support for Walker’s plan, even if they had some internal disagreements earlier.
Fitzgerald said Republicans could not back down now because the governor’s two-year budget blueprint, to be released in coming days, slashes spending for public schools and municipal services by $1 billion or more. Local government leaders will need to make cuts without bargaining with employees, he said.
Walker’s plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum. Unions would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.
The plan would also require many public employees to cut their take home pay by about 8 percent by contributing more of their salaries toward their health insurance and retirement benefits. Union leaders said their members are willing to accept those concessions, but they will not give up their right to collectively bargain.
Wisconsin was the first state to enact a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959. It’s also the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national union representing all non-federal public employees, which was founded in 1936 in Madison.
Walker said the concessions would help close a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit through June 30, 2013, and the changes to weaken unions would pave the way for local and state governments to operate more efficiently for years to come.
A key part of Walker’s plan to balance the $137 million budget shortfall this year calls for restructuring state debt to save $165 million.
But a Feb. 22 memo from Walker’s Department of Administration secretary warns that the bill must pass by Friday to allow time to refinance state bonds in order to save the money.
Walker said Monday not doing that restructuring could force 1,500 layoffs or more aggressive spending cuts.
The Republican-controlled Assembly is expected to meet Tuesday to consider the plan. The Senate planned to meet on Tuesday, even though Senate Democrats skipped town, to approve a resolution commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl and extending tax breaks for dairy farmers.
While Republicans are one vote short of the quorum needed to take up the budget-repair bill, they need only a simple majority of the Senate’s 33 members to take up other measures.
Erpenbach, speaking from Chicago, said he feared Republicans may try to pass the collective bargaining restrictions as an amendment to an unrelated bill.
“If I’m him, this is the only option I have to make it become law,” Erpenbach said, adding that Democrats were steadfast in their plans to stay away until there is a compromise.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.