“Get back to work,” the man told me. He listened to the radio all afternoon and was convinced I needed to be in Madison to do my job. At the same time, my constituents pleaded with me to fight for workers rights.
Leaving Madison was the only way my colleagues and I could stop a bill that would fundamentally change Wisconsin. We needed time for the people’s voice to be heard.
On February 11th the Governor introduced a bill to make sweeping changes in the state’s Medicaid system; chip away at the civil service system and do away with public workers rights.
The bill is fast tracked; the only committee hearing was the following Tuesday. Public testimony was halted with still hundreds waiting to testify. The bill passed out of committee at 12 a.m. Thursday morning and was scheduled for a final Senate vote the same day.
Invoking a Wisconsin Constitution provision, I and my Senate Democratic colleagues decided to move our base of operations to Illinois. By crossing state lines we were outside the reach of the Majority Party who would have compelled us to vote. We did not take this decision lightly. We chose our only option to slow the process and work toward honest negotiations.
The Governor says the proposed law is necessary to balance the budget. Last Friday state and local public employee union leaders agreed to all financial aspects of the bill. Still the Governor claims he must eliminate public employee unions to resolve the budget deficit.
Two years ago Wisconsin faced a $6.6 billion budget hole. We filled the deficit with a balanced approach to spending and taxes that protected vital services and infrastructure. We cut spending by more than $3 billion – the deepest cut in Wisconsin history. We closed tax loopholes and made other tax changes to bring an additional $1.6 billion to the state coffers. We cut government programs by $2 billion making nearly every aspect of government do more with less. Now the state faces a deficit of less than half that amount.
According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau the state isn’t even required to pass a “budget repair” bill. But if the Governor wants to get the state’s fiscal house in order by the end of this fiscal year, he could call for passing parts of the bill dealing only with fiscal matters.
There is absolutely no need to destroy Wisconsin’s traditions of civil service, clean government, quality public schools and peaceful labor relations.
The Governor called on public employees to pay more for their health care and pensions. In good faith, public employee union leaders agreed to those financial concessions. Now it is time for Governor Walker to negotiate in good faith.
My Democratic colleague and I respectfully asked the Governor to negotiate. We reminded him a large coalition of religious leaders asked that he sit down with leaders.
But the Governor refuses to sit down with labor leaders, refuses to acknowledge the concessions made by those leaders and refuses to negotiate at all.
My office phone has rung continuously for over a week. The calls run 10 to 1 opposed to the bill. I received more contact from constituents on this bill than all other issues in the past four years combined. Cities, counties and school boards are passing resolutions asking that parts of the bill eliminating public worker rights be removed. Many local officials expressed dismay over the way the bill usurps local control. Some mayors who complained unions gained too much power say the Governor’s bill is too extreme.
Even though I write this from an undisclosed location in Illinois, I continue to talk with constituents, local government officials and local media. I work with my staff to respond to thousands of constituents who write or called about this bill. And I continue to represent the people of our senate district.
People asked me when we will return to Madison. Right now the ball is in the Governor’s court. He has the power to end the strife by simply calling all sides to the table.
Something so far he has refused to do.