|Battle for the Budget|
|Written by Terry Mayer|
|Wednesday, 23 February 2011 12:32|
Photography By Terry Mayer
By Todd Mishler
The collective eyes of a state and nation have been transfixed on Madison the past two weeks, watching to see what was and wasn’t happening.
And representatives from Walworth and Rock counties were among those on the front lines during a historic legislative showdown — and Senate stalemate — inside the Capitol and unprecedented rallies outside.
Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill provided the trigger, and 14 Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois to avoid a quorum and squelch a vote on the controversial measures created the flashpoint as the GOP-controlled chambers dug in their respective partisan heels while debate grew more heated and uglier.
Walker’s bill sets minimum contributions for public employees to their health insurance plans and requires them, for the first time, to pay 50 percent of their pension contribution. The bill also eliminates all provisions of collective bargaining, except wages.
State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, represents the 15th District and is one of the legislators whose trip south of the border put him squarely in the bull’s-eye of the bill’s supporters from both houses.
Cullen said that for personal reasons he wasn’t present when his party went into caucus the morning of Feb. 17, but he supported the maneuver because it got the results he and his counterparts were seeking.
“My best friend in the world, retired Supreme Court Justice William Bablitch, died in Hawaii late Wednesday night and I told the family that I would distribute the news when I got to Madison, which coincided with our caucus Thursday morning. But I agreed to abide by their decision. It’s not my style, but I agreed to do it … for a while.
“But this is such a big deal and they wanted to pass it through in three days when it includes so many pieces other than collective bargaining that most people don’t know about,” Cullen said Tuesday of the 144-page document. “Like with Medicaid, which under this bill would eliminate legislative oversight, and there are 1 million people on it right now.”
With the budget bill on hold, people had more time to learn about it and react to it, he said.
“If we had stayed, the bill would have passed already, so our decision has had more impact,” Cullen said. “It also allowed the public workers to offer to pay 50 percent into their pensions and 12.6 percent for health insurance that the governor said he wanted.”
However, Walker didn’t back down in his attempts at fixing a budget deficit of $137 million in the current fiscal year and as much as $3.6 billion over the next two years. And despite seeing tens of thousands of protesters gather around the Capitol square, most in opposition, Walker continued to push for the bill and warned that layoff notices for state employees could come as early as next week.
Republican legislators from southern Wisconsin unanimously showed support for the governor’s strategy and attacked Democratic senators for their absence.
“To be honest, I’m not sure why so many people are surprised by the budget repair bill because the governor and myself campaigned on this sort of bold change and are simply following through on that,” said state Rep. Tyler August, R-Walworth, who worked for Assemblyman Thomas Lothian for six years before winning the latter’s 32nd District seat in November. “E-mails and calls have been pouring in the past 10 days, and the majority of them support the bill. The people sent us here with the governor and a majority in both houses and we’re moving forward on our agenda.
“But the biggest disappointment has been the 14 Democrats leaving the state, which to me is an unbelievable disservice considering they tried to run things through before we were sworn in,” August added. “Me and my colleagues have been showing up at the office, and the Democrats are playing games.”
State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, of the 45th Assembly District, said she has supported the legislation from the get-go, but has strongly backed it since certain reservations about the original bill were assuaged.
“I had concerns until the civil service protections were added after the Joint Finance Committee hearing,” Loudenbeck said. “I became much more confident with the bill after that, but I took the time to research it and took the opportunity to discuss it with my colleagues, party leadership and the governor.
“I’m sure we’ll have substantial debate and amendments, so it’ll take at least several days. But we’re moving forward in our attempts to break away from the status quo and get the state’s fiscal house back in order.”
State Rep. Evan Wynn, R-Whitewater, represents the 43rd Assembly District and said despite the thousands of pro-union residents getting most of the publicity, those who support the legislation outnumber those who don’t. He’s determined to see that the budget repair bill gets passed.
“The protesters have been loud, but I believe they’re a vocal minority,” Wynn said. “I see where Tim Cullen said the state is split 50/50, but I feel it’s 60/40 in favor of the bill. Mr. Cullen and the other Senate Democrats were in hiding, while the rest of us have been here working and communicating with our constituents.”
Continued Wynn, “This thing is bigger than the budget or collective bargaining; it’s about what system of government we want and not the minority dictating things to the majority. It’s about making this state great.”
State Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, represents the 31st Assembly District. He said no amount of intimidation would keep him from voting for the bill.
“A vote in favor of the budget repair bill is a vote for the people,” Nass said. “A vote against this bill is a vote in favor of the public-sector union bosses. It’s that simple, and there can be no compromise. This is a defining moment for the future of our state and the families that call Wisconsin home.”
Cullen wholeheartedly disagreed with Nass and said that a big reason why he decided to join his party members was because of Republicans’ failure to compromise. Cullen said he and his counterparts knew they would have to deal with a backlash by leaving the Senate chamber, and he disputes critics’ claims that he failed to live up to a campaign promise of reaching across the aisle, pointing out that he approached GOP leaders about alternatives to break the deadlock and talked to Walker for more than 30 minutes Feb. 19 while in Illinois.
“Since Jan. 3, we had approximately 80 roll calls, and the Republicans voted as a group on all 80 of them,” Cullen said. “We voted 10 to 15 times on four economic development bills, and I voted with the Republicans.”
Walker is unwilling to negotiate, Cullen said, and that has been frustrating.
“I’ve worked with eight governors, and they were all willing to negotiate,” he said. “I talked to former Gov. (Tommy) Thompson the other day and he told me that he always was ready to make a deal. That may sound sort of sleazy, but the point is that they’ve all been willing to compromise. Besides, you never want either side to get 100 percent of what they want.”
As the rhetoric intensified, none of the legislators could ignore what was happening around them, although several GOP representatives said not everything about the democratic process playing out in Madison was worth writing home about.
“Obviously, people have the right to get together in opposition of things going on in the Legislature, but this has been the first time in my time here that this building has been treated like this by protesters, garbage all over, stuff taped all over the walls and graffiti in the bathrooms,” August said. “It’s all quite sad.”
Loudenbeck said that the situation deteriorated slowly as the crowds grew larger, but she remained undeterred and focused on what she believed needed to happen.
“It was very calm inside the (Assembly) chamber last week, and that helped bring us back to what was important and getting back to business,” she said. “But you could feel a sort of pulse outside with the drums, chants and everything, which made it hard to concentrate.”
As the days went by, it became harder to maintain an open-door office policy for her constituents, Loudenbeck said. “ … (P)eople started getting pushier, so the interaction was limited,” she said
But Loudenbeck is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, so she wasn’t taken aback by the hullabaloo.
“I’m not surprised by the large crowds gathering on the square, because that’s how government is supposed to work, and I expect the numbers to get a lot bigger today (Feb. 22).”
Wynn, an Iraq war veteran, used a battlefield reference to describe the sometimes-chaotic environment.
“I’ve told others this, but it was like being in the turret of a Humvee in Sadr City with 300 screaming Iraqis around you, but I wasn’t frazzled like some other new legislators because of having been in stressful situations like that,” Wynn said. “If people want to protest, that’s great. But what upsets me is how they’re treating this building, one that taxpayers have spent $140 million to renovate over the past 10 years, urinating in the corner, scratching into the nice marble. This is a great building, everybody’s building.”
Cullen held the same Senate seat from 1974 to 1987, the last five as majority leader. He said he hasn’t been around anything like what has happened the past two weeks.
“There was the state employee strike back in 1977-’78 and I flew around in a helicopter to see various state institutions, but the sizes of the crowds at the Capitol and the action we took (by leaving) are unprecedented in my experience.”
ELKHORN -- Both supporters and opponents of Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget repair bill rallied Tuesday evening on the square in downtown Elkhorn.
The two groups gathered from about 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the corner of Walworth Avenue and Wisconsin Street carrying signs in support of their postion.
The "I Stand With Scott Walker" rally attracted member so the Walworth County Republican party, along with other supporters.
Labor organizers attracted representatives from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, (AFSCME) and other labor organizations to attend, as well as small business owners and community members opposed to the bill.
The bill sets minimum contributions for public employees to their health insurance plans and requires them, for the first time, pay 50 percent of their pension contribution. The bill also eliminates all provisions of collective bargaining, except wages.
Gov. Walker says the bill is needed to balance the state budget and to give local municipalities the ability to balance local budgets in the face of what he calls "significant cuts" to aid the state pays to local communities.
Protests continued in Madison for a seventh day as both houses of the legislature returned to deliberate, but neither was able to pass the bill.
For more, pick up Wednesday's Walworth County Gazette, read online in the Gazette e-edition HERE, or check WalworthCountyToday.com after 4 p.m. for the latest details.
For complete coverage of Walworth County's legislative contingent, read the next Walworth County Sunday, HERE.