Wisconsin’s Democrats ask for talks on unions
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) – Wisconsin Democrats who fled the state more than two weeks ago to block a vote on a Republican plan to limit public sector union powers asked on Monday to “resume serious discussions” to break the impasse.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller appealed in a letter on Monday for a face-to-face meeting with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald “to reach a bipartisan solution to our differences … .”
Wisconsin’s 14 Senate Democrats left the state on February 17 to prevent a full Senate vote on the proposals, which were part of a bill to close a budget gap in the current fiscal year.
The proposals have touched off weeks of pro-union rallies at the Capitol Building in Madison and around the country to protest the changes which Walker said are needed to fix a state budget deficit.
Walker’s office did not immediately comment on the letter.
Democrats on Sunday said they had no immediate plans to return to Wisconsin and Miller on Monday said state residents were “overwhelmingly supportive of us reaching a bipartisan, negotiated compromise.”
Some Senate Democrats met with Fitzgerald a week ago in Kenosha, Wisconsin, near the border with Illinois. Contacts between Republicans and Democrats had been slowly picking up over the past week.
On Sunday, Miller was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that Democrats would return to the Capitol soon to vote on the Republican bill. He told the Journal that moving forward with that vote would give Democrats more leverage in seeking changes to Walker’s proposed 2011-13 two-year budget.
Walker proposed increased payments for health care and pension benefits for public workers but also stripping most of their unions of most key collective bargaining provisions.
The Wisconsin Assembly has approved the Walker bill, but it remains stalled in the Senate. The Senate needs only one Democrat to show up for the vote to be completed.
Walker has shown few signs of compromise, telling reporters on Thursday that “extremist elements” among 14 absent Democrats had blocked progress.
On Friday, Walker issued notices warning state workers of mass layoffs in early April if Democrats do not approve the measures to curtail public sector union powers.
Wisconsin has become the center of national attention because labor unions fear approval of the restrictions could lead to other state doing so.
Ohio’s Senate last week approved restrictions on public sector unions, and similar measures are under consideration in several other states including Tennessee, Indiana, Kansas and Idaho.
(Writing by David Bailey, Editing by Greg McCune)