CAP TIMES: Committee passes Walker's budget bill despite mass protests in capitol

February 17, 2011
Kristin Czubkowski

With drumming and chanting noises making their way into the state Joint Finance Committee meeting, it was nearly impossible for any committee member not to hear the thousands of protesters inside the state Capitol Wednesday. What Democrats and Republicans on the committee disagreed on, however, was whether the Republicans had actually listened to the protesters.

The committee passed Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill Wednesday night along party lines, 12-4, with one multi-part amendment from Republicans. Republicans said the amendment, which set up a requirement for local governments to have an employee grievance process, among other items, was a product of testimony taken over more than 12 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as caucusing with non-committee Republicans.

Walker's attempt to strip limited term employees of their state health insurance and retirement benefits also was reversed through the GOP amendment. While some limited term employees are seasonal or temporary employees who only work part time, many rise to full-time status by working two, 20-hour contracts simultaneously. Roughly 1,500 LTE's now work for the state, and several had testified before the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday to inform members how they would outright lose their health insurance.

But Democrats on the committee argued the amendment did not go nearly far enough, as it did not restore collective bargaining rights for state and other public employees.

"The hearings I sat in yesterday, the 17-hour hearing and the subsequent hearing that followed, I didn't hear a lot of folks coming and talking about the power plants and the group insurance board membership," said Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, referring to two other provisions in the amendment, one of which would require sale of state power plants to go through the joint finance committee. "I heard people coming and crying and talking about losing their jobs ... I'm not making a very solid connection between what we heard as a committee ... and what this document reflects."

"This is like putting lipstick on a pig," added Rep. Jennifer Schilling, D-LaCrosse. "It's not even lipstick — it's Chapstick. The changes are there, but you can't really see them."

Republicans say they were also listening to the voices from last fall's overwhelmingly Republican vote as well as the voices of taxpayers saying they could not afford another tax increase, citing the current budget deficit of $137 million and future budget deficit of $3.6 billion over the next two years as one reason for supporting the removal of collective bargaining rights.

"We're not all going to agree. This is a tough bill we're dealing with. We can say voices were heard, but we're not going to agree. That's the democratic process, but we appreciate everyone's participation," said committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

Democrats took issue with several of the provisions of the amendment, one of which created an exemption to tax-increment financing law for a wetland property in the village of Ashwaubenon, a follow-up to the law recently passed that would have allowed developers to build on that same property without a Department of Natural Resources permit. Grigsby also questioned whether the grievance procedures created by municipalities would mirror what was in many collective bargaining agreements already or whether they would be changed without input from workers.

"Grievance is good, but being at the table is better," she said.

An effort by Sen. Lena Taylor , D-Milwaukee, to remove portions of the amendment and bill that were not fiscal measures failed on party lines, 4-12, after comments from Democrats about the Republicans' frequent criticism of former Gov. Jim Doyle for including policy items in budget bills.

Prior to the committee meeting, Assembly Speaker Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, spoke critically of the decision of many Madison Metropolitan School District employees to call in sick and protest at the Capitol, saying it was unfair to families who had to scramble to find babysitters and who couldn't miss work.

The committee's passage of the bill, however, has prompted even more school districts, including Madison, to cancel classes Thursday, with Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell calling on school employees to come protest at the state Capitol if they could.

Whether their voices will be heard by Republicans remains to be seen — the state Senate is schedule to take up the bill on Thursday and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said it has enough votes to pass.