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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker warns of layoffs as unions step up efforts

Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks at a news conference inside the Wisconsin State Capitol
Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks at a news conference inside the Wisconsin State Capitol February 21, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. Getty Images/Eric Thayer

As public workers across Wisconsin continue into a second week of protests against Republican plans to roll back their benefits and bargaining rights, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is warning that state employees could receive layoff notices as early as next week if they don't agree to the changes.

With Walker standing his ground, politicians and activists on both sides of the conflict are digging in their heels. Democratic state lawmakers remain out of the state in protest of the Walker's proposals, but Republican state legislators are increasing pressure at the state capitol for the Democrats to return.

Meanwhile, national labor unions are ratcheting up their support for public employees in Wisconsin with a new ad airing in the state, as well as a new poll indicating the public is on their side.

Walker has repeatedly said that as many as 1,500 workers could lose their jobs by July if his plan isn't enacted. In a statement to the Associated Press today, the governor said notices of layoffs could go out next week, though he said they would not take effect immediately. He did not say which workers would be targeted. "Hopefully we don't get to that point," the governor said.

Public sector unions have conceded to Walker's proposal to roll back their benefits in order to help balance the state budget, but they say rolling back collective bargaining rights goes too far. Both proposals are a part of Walker's "budget repair bill."

In a press conference Monday, Walker acknowledged that union leaders have agreed to increase public employee contributions for pension benefits to 5 percent and health care to 12 percent. However, he insisted they must also give up collective bargaining rights, or else local governments will not be able to balance their own budgets, reports.

The Wisconsin Senate was slated to vote on Walker's "budget repair bill" last week, but Senate Democrats fled the state to deprive the legislative body of the 20-vote quorum needed to pass any spending bill. With Senate Democrats still gone, the state Assembly will take up the bill this morning, but Assembly Democrats plan to introduce hundreds of amendments to slow down the process, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Meanwhile, state Senate Republicans are turning up the heat on their Democratic colleagues by starting work on a voter ID bill that Democrats strongly oppose, according to the Journal Sentinel. Republicans say they can modify the bill so that the spending provisions are removed and it can be passed without Democratic lawmakers present -- a threat they hope will compel Democrats back to work.

Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach told the Journal Sentinel he was "dumbfounded" by Republicans' insistence on stripping away most public union collective bargaining rights.

"They have the money to balance the budget," Erpenbach said. "I don't understand what their end game is, other than they want to break unions, they want to privatize."

Erpenbach added that "the ball is in Governor Walker's court" and that he should simply concede on the collective bargaining portion of his bill.

A poll, commissioned by the AFL-CIO and conducted by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, suggests Wisconsin voters agree. When asked about Walker's specific agenda, 52 percent of Wisconsin voters said they oppose the plan, according to the poll. Forty-two percent said they agreed with the plan.

When asked whether public workers should have their collective bargaining rights stripped, even if they agree to pay more for health care and retirement, 74 percent said no.

Another poll from Rasmussen Reports suggests the opposite. The automated survey of national likely voters found that 48 percent agreed more with Walker, while 38 percent agreed more with "the union for teachers and other state employees." Rasmussen has been known to show bias in favor of Republican proposals and may have used biased questions in this poll, as reported by Nate Silver of the New York Times.

Along with their poll, the national AFL-CIO, the SEIU and AFSCME are also backing an ad that begins airing today in support of public workers. (Watch the ad above.)

The ad features Racine, Wisconsin, firefighter Mike DeGarmo (even though Walker's proposal exempts police, firefighters and state troopers).

"When our crew is face to face with a fire, we stand together, or we fall together. It's that simple," DeGarmo says. "Now nurses, teachers and other public employees have come together to stand up for Wisconsin workers."

The firefighter points out that unions have already agreed to scale back their benefits.

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