14 Democratic senators flee Wisconsin, union protests escalate
By Jackie Arthur
MADISON, Wisconsin: Newly elected Governor Scott Walker and Senate Republicans are facing the wrath of many Wisconsinites this week, due to a controversial new piece of legislation introduced Tuesday focusing on reining in state spending.
Wisconsin Assembly Bill 11 was introduced by the Committee on Assembly Organization, and approved by the Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday. The bill was proposed to help ease the state's $136.7 million budget crisis, which is expected to balloon to $3.6 billion over the next two years. Wisconsin has a total state debt of $17,971,519,547 when calculated by adding the total of outstanding debt, pension and OPEB UAAL’s, unemployment trust funds and the 2010 budget gap as of July 2010. The bill attempts to chip away at the deficit by dealing with state finances, the possibility of selling power plants at state facilities, including university campuses and prisons, and limiting collective bargaining rights, compensation and fringe benefits of public employees.
In light of an almost certain Republican victory, all 14 Democratic senators fled the Capitol on Thursday morning, leaving the 19 Republicans one vote shy of a quorum. Ted Blazel, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, went looking for the missing legislators, but to no avail. Reports later confirmed the senators fled to a resort in Rockford, Illinois. State police were dispatched to retrieve the senators, but are unable to do so because of their inability to cross state lines.
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The 14 state senators who left the state are being described as the "Badger 14." They are Tim Carpenter, Lena Taylor, Spencer Coggs, Chris Larson, Jim Holperin, Tim Cullen, Mark Miller, Robert Wirch, Julie Lassa, Robert Jauch, Fred Risser, Jon Erpenbach, Dave Hansen and Kathleen Vinehout.
Questions concerning potential consequences for the 14 Democrats have also arisen. According to the Wisconsin Constitution, Article IV sections seven and eight, each house has the authority to discipline members or compel them to attend. No specifics are given as to the nature of the punishments.
Teachers in the metro Madison and Milwaukee areas have also fled their positions, and taken to the streets. Thousands of union teachers called in "sick" on Wednesday and Thursday, joining the masses of already gathered protesters in numbers estimated at around 20,000 in and around the State Capitol building. Due to the large number of absences, many schools were forced to call off classes on Wednesday and Thursday, with many threatening to do the same on Friday. In the Madison area and surrounding communities, 21 districts closed their schools. About four schools in the Milwaukee area closed, two of them canceling parent/teacher conferences.
With respect to state law, legal issues are surfacing with this week's "sick out." Wisconsin law prohibits teacher strikes, however, many argue for the legality of the protest, claiming it is not directed at an employer, disqualifying it as a strike. John Matthews, the Madison Teachers Inc. executive director, referred to the events "a political action," not a strike. Peter Davis, legal counsel with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, a commission which administers collective bargaining laws, thinks differently. "A strike includes any concerted work stoppage by municipal employees, any concerted interruption of operation of services, or any concerted refusal to work or perform normal duties for the purpose of enforcing demands on a municipal employer."
The bill, if passed, would prohibit future strikes of the same kind. The bill reads, "This bill authorizes a state agency to discharge any state employee who fails to report to work as scheduled for any three unexcused working days during a state of emergency or who participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit−down, stay−in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the of operations or services of state government, including specifically purported mass resignations or sick calls. Under the bill, engaging in any of these actions constitutes just cause for discharge."
As of Thursday, nine people have been arrested in Madison as a result of the massive protest.
- Wisconsin State Senate
- Union protests in Madison, Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill
- MacIver Institute, Wisconsin Deficit Woes Mount, 8 Feb. 2011
- Committee passes Walker's budget bill; now moves to Senate, 17 Feb. 2011
- Sunshine Review.org, Wisconsin state budget, 17 Feb. 2011
- Wisconsin.gov, ASSEMBLY BILL 11, accessed 17 Feb. 2011
- Green Bay Press Gazette, Wisconsin Democrats flee to Clock Tower Hotel in Rockford, Ill., to block anti-union bill, 17 Feb. 2011
- Bloomberg Businessweek, Senator: Missing Wis. lawmakers left the state, 17 Feb. 2011
- The Badger 14
- chron.com, Wis. lawmakers flee state to block anti-union bill, 17 Feb. 2011
- Madison.com, Was Wednesday's 'sick out' by Madison teachers an illegal strike?, 16 Feb. 2011