MADISON, Wisc. (CN) – The State Capitol building reopened Monday morning after Gov. Scott Walker ordered it closed for a week and a half to protesters fighting his anti-union Budget Repair Bill.
A Dane County judge ordered the building reopened after the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24 AFL-CIO sued the state. The union says it has “a personal interest” in Walker’s budget repair bill and the closure of the Capitol violated its members’ constitutional rights to “speak, assemble, petition the government and consult for the common good.”
The Budget Repair Bill – Senate Bill 11 – which Walker claims was written to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, has sparked a torrent of debate by Republicans, Democrats and independents since it was introduced on Feb. 11.
Walker claimed the that “The bill will balance the budget and lay the foundation for a long-term sustainable budget through several measures without raising taxes, raiding segregated funds, or using accounting gimmicks.”
Walker said the bill, which kills public employees’ collective bargaining rights to everything but salary, “will meet the immediate needs of our state and give government the tools to deal with this and future budget crises.”
The bill reduces many benefits state employees have received for years: it requires them to contribute 50 percent to their pensions, which never before required an employee pay-in; it increase employee contributions for health insurance from a 6 percent statewide average to just over 12 percent; it will strip collective bargaining rights; it prohibits employers from collecting union dues through paycheck deductions; and it requires annual votes to recertify union representation, among other things.
The bill – which makes far greater changes to collective-bargaining rights than it does to the state’s budget deficit – led to a national uproar.
As many as 100,000 protesters a day – and some proponents of the bill – have rallied at the Capitol since Valentine’s Day.
Jesse Jackson showed up to support the protesters; the Journal Sentinel newspaper reported that he told a group of middle-school students in Milwaukee’s inner city “that Wisconsin’s fight over labor and collective bargaining rights for public workers is an extension of the fight for equal voting rights in the 1960s.”
Filmmaker Michael Moore was spotted on Saturday, tweeting, “Madison is the new Cairo!” Danny DeVito shared in the love, tweeting, “Wis. hold on Baby!”
All 14 Democratic state senators, dubbed by the media the “Wisconsin 14” (and as “fleebaggers” by Republicans), fled to Illinois to delay the signing of the bill.
Sarah Palin told Fox News that they should be fired.
“They’ve retreated, not reloaded,” Palin said.
Republicans hold a 19-14 edge in the state Senate; they need at least one Democrat to bring the bill to a vote. They ordered the arrest of the Democratic state senators, for contempt, cut off access to their paychecks via ATM machines, and passed a resolution that would fine anyone “who is absent without leave from two or more session days,” and stopping their expense reimbursements.
There have been mixed reports on when the Democratic senators will return; the main issue continues to be the survivability of collective bargaining rights.
CNN reported that “Walker has said the limits on public bargaining are a critical component of his plan and are not negotiable.”
But Democratic state Senator Chris Larson told CNN that the Wisconsin 14 will return “only when the governor removed curbs on public-employee collective bargaining.”
Protesters overcame a small hurdle last week when Dane County Judge John Albert allowed them to protest in the Capitol once again.
Judge Albert said in a statement that the meaning of his order is clear. The State of Wisconsin violated the public’s right to free speech and assembly by unconstitutionally restricting access to the building.
The judge added, however, that “state officials have the right to restrict protesters to the rotunda and keep them away from legislative offices. Moreover, protesters will have to obtain permits and abide by normal business hours, or when the Legislature is in session, when they protest.”
The union is represented by former Wisconsin Attorney Genera, Peg Lautenschlager. She told the Journal Sentinel, “I was encouraged by the judge’s ruling, the fact that he recognized the actions of the Department of Administration and the state to limit access to the Capitol were unconstitutional. That was huge.”
Lautenschlager told demonstrators, “We won this battle.”
But the battle continues.