MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued layoff warning notices on Friday to unions representing state workers as a battle intensified between Republican and Democratic lawmakers over union bargaining rights that has sparked protests and a national debate.
“If the Senate Democrats come back to Wisconsin, these notices may be able to be rescinded and layoffs avoided,” Walker said in a statement. “This action is necessary due to the delay in passage of the budget repair bill.”
The warning notices were sent to at least 13 unions including AFSCME, Association of State Prosecutors and Wisconsin Education Association Council. The notes do not represent actual layoffs, but took the war of words between the newly elected governor and state Democrats to a new level.
The number of potential layoffs was not specified, but Walker said this week about 1,500 workers would be affected.
Walker, a Republican who this week projected a budget deficit for Wisconsin of $3.6 billion for the coming two years, has proposed a budget “fix” for the current year ending in June that would eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s 300,000 public employees.
That measure drew more than 70,000 protesters to the capital a week ago the biggest local march since the Vietnam War. It has also become the epicenter of a national debate on union rights.
Walker’s bill remains stalled in the Wisconsin Senate where all 14 Democrats fled to neighboring Illinois two weeks ago to deny the measure the quorum it needs to pass in the chamber.
Dave Hansen, one of the 14, issued a statement on Friday saying that while he had believed the two sides were making progress earlier in the week, “it has become increasingly apparent that Governor Walker is not interested in compromise, but instead appears intent on prolonging the impasse.”
Behind-the-scenes negotiations have failed to produce a compromise. Just one Democrat is needed for a quorum.
Walker told reporters late on Thursday that “extremist elements” among 14 absent Democrats had blocked progress.
“Just when we think the process is moving forward, we see no action,” Walker said. “We’re frustrated.”
Walker said some of the absent Democrats, who have been threatened with $100-a-day fines and the prospect of being arrested and taken to the Senate if they return to Wisconsin, appear willing to stay away “not only for several more months, but potentially the next two years.”
With no action expected on the bill, Walker said he will be forced to send out layoff notices to 1,500 state employees, saving some $30 million.
“The reality is, we shouldn’t have to be going down the path of preparing for layoffs.” Walker said.
In the Midwest, the traditional “Rust Belt” heartland of the country and home to big unionized manufacturers like the auto and steel industries, there were signs that some Republican budget “hawks” were taking caution from Wisconsin.
A poll by Rasmussen Reports of 800 Wisconsin voters on March 2 found 34 percent strongly approved of Walker’s performance as governor, while 48 percent strongly disapproved. Walker was elected with a 52 percent majority last November.
In Ohio, where legislators are considering even more stringent curbs on unions, the Republican leader of the state’s House of Representatives decided on Friday to hold at least three weeks of debate on a bill — a setback for its backers.
Republican Gov. John Kasich had hoped to enact Senate Bill 5 by March 15 when he is scheduled to unveil his two-year budget proposal for fiscal 2012-2013.
The vote in the Ohio Senate on Wednesday was 17 to 16 with six Republicans joining Democrats in voting against.
In Indiana, where 38 Democrats have also fled the state to delay a vote on bills they say would harm workers’ rights, Republicans on Friday voted to impose a $250-a-day fine starting on Monday for members who aren’t on the House floor.
Protests against the Wisconsin bill included a two-week-long occupation of the state Capitol building.
Walker’s budget repair bill increases worker contributions to their pensions and health care and Walker said it provides tools for local governments to cut expenses, reducing the need for layoffs in the current fiscal year.
The group Americans for Prosperity said on Friday they will do a “Stand Against Spending, Stand With Walker” bus tour around Wisconsin on Saturday in support Walker’s plan, with a rally planned for Sunday in Madison but not at the Capitol.
Opponents including the AFL-CIO and other unions said they will continue to organize protests at the Capitol on Saturday and Sunday along with smaller events throughout the state.
(Additional reporting by Susan Guyett in Indianapolis and Jim Lekrone in Columbus. Editing by Andrew Stern and Peter Bohan)