MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Monday called for the return of the 14 Democratic state senators who left the state last week to avoid voting on a bill that that severely curbs state workers’ bargaining rights.
“They’ve got to come to Wisconsin, do the job that they were elected to do, do the job that they’re paid to do,” Walker said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“If they want to do that, we will sit down and talk to them. But the bottom line is we can’t negotiate over a budget because we are broke and we need the money.”
Walker said the state is trying to balance its budget, projected to have a $3.6 billion deficit over the next several years. “There really is no room to negotiate,” he said.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in and around the Wisconsin state capital on Monday morning, despite the cold weather, for a second week of protests to oppose the newly elected Republican governor’s budget proposals, which in addition to reductions in union bargaining power include financial concessions.
An estimated 55,000 demonstrators rallied outside and inside the Capitol building on Saturday. Big crowds were expected again on Monday, when the Wisconsin Education Association Council, representing some 98,000 public education employees, was planning a protest rally.
Monday is a mandatory furlough day for state workers as well as a U.S. holiday, enabling many to go to Madison.
The Democratic senators have left the state to deny the Wisconsin state Senate a quorum needed to consider the controversial proposal.
Wisconsin Democratic senate minority leader Mark Miller told CBS’ “The Early Show” on Monday that public employees had agreed to economic concessions and the governor needed to be open to a compromise on other matters.
“The governor has not done anything except insist that it has to be his way, all or nothing,” Miller said. “The governor needs to recognize that this is a democracy and in a democracy you negotiate.”
“The unions, the public employees, have agreed to the economic demands, all they ask is they be able to retain the workers’ rights and we are supporting them on that,” he said.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said that while the Democrats won’t want to stay away for too long, there’s nothing the Republicans can do to compel them to come back if Walker is unwilling to negotiate.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of pressure from the districts for the senators to come back,” Heck said. “And let’s face it — it’s a budget repair bill that doesn’t have to be done until June. There’s no rush.”
‘NERVES ARE RAW’
Scott Becher, a former Republican legislative aide who now works as a political and public relations consultant, agreed the polarization in the state capitol was unprecedented and might affect the legislature long after the current debate ends.
“Nerves are raw,” Becher said. “Both sides are dug in deep. Friendships will be changed. This is really hard.”
Public sector workers in West Virginia, in support of the Wisconsin protests, also plan a rally on Monday to demand better pay and improved working conditions.
Wisconsin has become the flashpoint for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states such as Ohio and Tennessee could be buoyed in efforts to take on the long-standing powerful unions.
The Wisconsin State Assembly is due to take up the Walker proposals on Tuesday. Republicans have a large enough majority to quorum in the Assembly without the Democrats.
Republican majority leader Scott Fitzgerald may convene the Senate on Tuesday with or without the Democrats, local media reported on Sunday. Fitzgerald’s party holds a 19-14 majority but needs a quorum of 20 to vote on spending bills. Other bills require only a quorum of 17 members.
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession decimated their finances. Other states like Texas, Arizona and Ohio are relying mainly on cuts in spending, while Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.
The changes sought by Walker would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions, end government collection of union dues, let workers opt out of unions and make unions hold recertification votes every year.
Union and Democratic leaders say they are willing to compromise on benefits if Republicans back off the bid to weaken collective bargaining, but Walker and his allies have stood firm.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by James Kelleher, Jeff Mayers and David Bailey; Editing by Peter Bohan, Tim Gaynor and Eric Walsh)