In a surprise move late Wednesday, Senate Republicans used a series of parliamentary maneuvers to overcome a three-week stalemate with Democrats and pass an amended version of the governor's controversial budget repair bill.
With a crowd of protesters chanting outside their chambers, Senators approved Gov. Scott Walker's bill, which would strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees. The new bill removes fiscal elements of the proposal but still curbs collective bargaining and increases employee payments in pension and health benefits. The changes would amount to an approximate 8 percent pay cut for public workers.
After the session, Senate Republicans scattered, leaving no one to explain how they managed to pass components of the bill that seemed to have a fiscal impact, including changes in pensions and benefits, without the 20 senators needed to vote on fiscal matters. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he had consulted with the Legislature's attorneys and "every item in tonight's bill follows the letter of the law."
The move ended a bizarre two-and-a-half hour legislative sprint in which the Senate hastily gaveled in and sent the measure to a Senate-Assembly conference committee, which typically works out differences between similar bills passed by the two houses.
Although the Senate hadn't yet passed the bill, Senate rules allow the Senate president to move a bill to a conference committee if the Assembly's intent is clear and it's past the amendable stage — a step the Senate took last month.
Word quickly spread that the Republicans were planning to rush the measure through by stripping the fiscal elements of the bill. Within an hour, the rotunda began to fill with angry protesters, while an even larger crowd gathered outside the building.
The 6 p.m. conference committee lasted just minutes, and featured an angry speech by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, the only Democratic member present, who accused the Republicans of violating the state's open meeting law and "trampling on democracy."
"Mr. Chairman, this is a violation of law," he said, referring to the short notice given for the meeting.
Typically, 24 hours' notice is required for a public meeting. There are exceptions, but it was not clear Wednesday that the conference committee met those standards.
Attorney Robert Dreps, an expert in media and political law, said exceptions can be made if notice is "impossible or impractical."
"It raises a lot of serious questions," he said. "I don't think they can satisfy the standard for giving such short notice for that committee meeting."
Senate Chief Clerk Robert Marchant said such notice is not needed when the Senate is in special session, but Dreps said he knew of no such exemption.
Moments after the committee meeting, the Senate adopted the bill, 18-1, with only Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, voting no. The Assembly is expected to take up the measure at 11 a.m. Thursday.
Senate Democrats were outraged. Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, said most of the senators watched the proceedings together on a live stream online in Illinois.
"We saw the complete stripping of long-held rights before our eyes," he said. "It was stunning."
Both he and Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said the Republicans' actions would escalate recall efforts against the GOP senators.
"This was an act of legislative thuggery," Jauch said.
It has been three weeks since Senate Democrats left the state in an effort to stall the passage of Walker's proposal. In that time, both sides have failed to reach an agreement on a compromise to the bill. The sticking point has been collective bargaining.
Walker and Republican leaders have repeatedly said that collective bargaining is a budgetary issue and as such, they would not strip fiscal components from the measure. None of the Republican leaders would speak to reporters following the vote, but Walker issued a statement in which he praised the move.
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," Walker said. "In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government."
Senate Democrats remained elusive about their next step. While they started the night saying they would soon be home, they quickly changed their statements.
Late Wednesday, several senators refused to say when they would return. Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said he would like to see all of the lawmakers take a step back.
"We just don't know what's going on," he said. "We don't know what is legal. I think we all just need to press ‘pause.' Democracy does not have to move this fast."
Sen. Fred Risser, D-Monona, said the senators would return when legislative action on the bill ends.
Meanwhile, they said the maneuver proved Republicans' goal has always had more to do with ending collective bargaining for public employees than balancing the budget.
"They have been saying all along that this is a fiscal item; we've been saying it is not," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, from Illinois. "They have been lying. Their goal is to bust up the unions."
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