MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Hundreds of Wisconsin's public employees clogged a hearing for hours and camped out in the state Capitol early Wednesday morning in a desperate attempt to delay action on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip away most of their collective bargaining rights.
The Legislature's finance committee was preparing to vote on the measure, which would end collective bargaining for all state, county and local workers expect for police, firefighters and the state patrol. The move marks the boldest step by a new Republican governor and Legislature to solve budget problems by confronting organized labor.
Opponents seized on the finance committee's public hearing on the bill on Tuesday to launch what co-chair Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called a "citizen filibuster" that tied up the hearing for hours. A vote by the committee would set up final votes in the state Senate and Assembly later this week.
As the clock ticked past midnight, hundreds of people were still waiting to speak. They jammed an overflow room and watched the hearing unfold on video monitors. Two floors below, dozens of University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching assistants and students surged into the Capitol rotunda late Tuesday evening, putting down sleeping bags and blankets.
"I just think it's really crappy," said Alison Port, a 19-year-old freshman from Wauwatosa as she clutched her laptop and her Green Bay Packers blanket. "Let's take all the rights away. If he starts here, where's he going to stop? What else is he going to throw at us? It's only going to get more extreme."
Meanwhile, school officials in Madison announced Wednesday's classes were canceled because 40 percent of the 2,600 members in the teacher bargaining unit had called in sick.
The theatrics notwithstanding, legislative leaders have said Walker has enough support in both the Senate and Assembly to approve the measure, which the governor said is necessary to address a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.
"We're broke and we don't want to lay off almost 20,000 people," said Senate President Mike Ellis, a Republican.
Union representatives were attempting to sway key moderates for a compromise but Democrats said the bill would be tough to stop. Democrats lost the governor's office and control of the Legislature in the November midterm elections, leaving them powerless.
"The Legislature has pushed these employees off the cliff but the Republicans have decided to jump with them," said Sen. Bob Jauch, one of 14 Democrats in the 33 member chamber.
New Republican governors and legislatures in other states have proposed cutting back on public employee costs to reduce budget shortfalls, but Wisconsin's move appears to be the earliest and most extensive.
Wisconsin was the first state to enact a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national union representing all non-federal public employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.
But the election of Walker, an outspoken conservative, last November and the GOP's seizing of control of both legislative chambers set the stage for a dramatic reversal of Wisconsin's strong labor history.
Walker's plan would make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. State employees' costs would go up by an average of 8 percent. The changes would save the state $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years.
Unions could still represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized. Local police, firefighters and state troopers would retain their collective bargaining rights.
In exchange for bearing more costs and losing leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.
Wisconsin is one of about 30 states with collective bargaining laws covering state and local workers.
Walker has argued that the public employee concessions are modest considering what private sector workers have suffered during the recession.
But Democratic opponents and union leaders said Walker's real motive was to strike back at political opponents who have supported Democrats over the years.
"So many people are against this," UW-Madison senior Kylie Christianson said early Wednesday as she sat in the Capitol rotunda on her blanket, putting the finishing touches on a protest sign. "His job is to help us, not to hurt us."
The public employee bill is the latest measure that Walker has pushed through the GOP-controlled Legislature since taking office in January. He's also signed into law tax cuts for businesses that relocate to Wisconsin and those that create jobs as well as sweeping lawsuit reform. To achieve additional budget savings, he is seeking authority to make changes in the Medicaid program, sell state power plants and restructure existing debt to save about $165 million.
Governors in a number of other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Nevada and Tennessee, have called for forcing concessions from public employee unions but no similar measures have moved to final action.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.
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