Republican leaders in several states softened their attacks on public employee unions Thursday in an effort to avert the fiery demonstrations that have gripped Wisconsin’s state capitol for days.
In Ohio, Republican lawmakers agreed to modify a bill that would have banned collective bargaining, allowing state workers to negotiate on wages. Michigan’s GOP governor offered to negotiate with public employees rather than create political gridlock. Likewise, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, R, called on GOP lawmakers to abandon a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for an employer to require workers to become or remain members of a labor union.
Even in Wisconsin – where more than 60,000 demonstrators have camped out at the state Capitol for the past week to protest a budget plan by Gov. Scott Walker, R, that would end collective bargaining rights for public employees – Republicans and Democrats took a small but significant step towards resolving their clash.
Shortly before dawn, state lawmakers in the Assembly announced an agreement that would allow a vote to go forward on the budget measure. The compromise came after a 40-hour filibuster by Democrats. The deal virtually ensures that Walker’s measure will pass the chamber, given its Republican majority.
That would send the bill to the state Senate, which has been unable to vote on the issue since 14 Democratic senators fled the state last week, leaving the body without a quorum. The Senate dispatched state troopers early Thursday to the homes of the Democratic senators, who have vowed to stay in Illinois until Walker negotiates on the budget bill. The troopers were unable to find any of the lawmakers.
While police cannot arrest the missing members, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R, has said he hopes they will feel compelled to come back to debate the bill. The Republicans need just a single Democrat to return in order to hold a vote on the budget legislation.
Democratic state Sen. Robert Jauch, a longtime Wisconsin lawmaker, said Thursday that despite rumors that some of his colleagues had returned to the state, “everybody is outside of Wisconsin . . . all of us.”
Jauch criticized what he called the “police state mentality” by Republicans in the capital and took issue with Walker’s assertion that the Democratic senators had abandoned their duties.
“I’m doing more from the Land of Lincoln to communicate with citizens in my district than he is,” Jauch said, adding that the Senate Democrats talk regularly and are “trying to reach out through back channels to see what the solution could be. This governor has dug himself in – that’s very clear.”
Under Walker’s plan, most public workers – excluding police, firefighters and state troopers – would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay and would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. Walker, who took office last month, says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.
Walker has warned of waves of public sector layoffs beginning Friday if the budget bill isn’t passed soon, and at least one major state employer – the schools – has already begun sending out preliminary layoff notices.
The Hustisford school district, for instance, sent layoff slips to all 34 members of its teaching staff, including librarians and counselors. Among those receiving notices included Lisa Fitzgerald, a counselor who is married to Fitzgerald, the state senate majority leader.
In Indiana, where most Democratic lawmakers have also fled to Illinois and the Republicans who control the House have adjourned until Monday, Gov. Daniels withdrew his support for the anti-union bill – which its backers describe as a “right to work” measure – despite criticism from the right.
In Ohio, Republican state senators offered a concession on a bill they introduced this week, saying that they would reinstate collective bargaining for wages only, not for other benefits. But those lawmakers also expanded the law’s proposed prohibition on strikes to apply to all public workers, including teachers. The original measure applied the ban on strikes only by public safety personnel.
The bill could come up for a vote in the full Senate as early as Tuesday, putting Ohio to the forefront of states poised to dramatically curtail the power of public employees. Supporters say such measures are essential if state and local governments are to address their mounting budget gaps.
“There are only three ways to solve the budget crisis: raise taxes, cut programs or cut compensation package,” said Matt Mayer, a former Bush administration appointee who is president of the Buckeye Institute in Columbus, a free-market think tank. “Because of the size of the problem that we face not just at the state level but more importantly at the local level, there’s just no way we’re going to get the cuts to the level we need to with the unions standing in between.”