February 19, 2011- With no political compromise in sight on Gov. Scott Walker's budget-repair bill, tens of thousands of demonstrators with strong opinions of their own converged Saturday inside and outside the state Capitol to chant, sing, wave signs, beat drums and march for their causes.
The march, believed to be the largest gathering at the Capitol since protesters began showing up last week, was huge but peaceful. There were no arrests, according to state officials.
The protesters descended on Madison as Walker, through a spokesman, rejected an overture from a Democratic state senator who said public employee unions had agreed to make financial sacrifices contained in the bill in return for the right to bargain collectively.
Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman, said in a statement that state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) "should come to work and debate the bill while doing his job in Madison.
"Gov. Walker has repeatedly said that we won't negotiate the budget and we can't balance the budget on a hope and a prayer," Werwie said. "That remains true. State and local government need the flexibility to manage this and future budget crises. In addition, as government workers pay a modest amount toward their pension and health care premium, about half the national average, it is fair to give them the choice of additional savings on their union dues."
Walker's office reacted in response to Erpenbach, who said he had been informed that state and local public employee unions had agreed to the financial aspects of the measure.
Erpenbach's statement was backed by a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, who confirmed the agreement, and by Marty Beil, the head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Erpenbach said the offer was "a legitimate and serious offer on the table from local, state and school public employees that balances Gov. Walker's budget."
"It would appear that Gov. Walker's only target is the destruction of collective bargaining rights and not solving the state's budget," Erpenbach said.
Erpenbach said the next move belonged to Walker.
"I don't see this coming to a head until the governor takes a look at this," Erpenbach said. "He has all he needs to balance the budget."
State Sen. Mark Miller (D-Middleton) agreed with Erpenbach.
"The governor got us into this mess by going too far," Miller said. He said local school districts and city councils across the state had the ability now to bargain with unions as a means of balancing budgets and negotiating cuts.
Sen. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) said Democratic senators were to meet in caucus again on Saturday night at an undisclosed location in Illinois.
Holperin said the senators expect to remain out of state through the weekend. But he said eventually they will have to make a decision to come back, either with Republicans agreeing to let collective bargaining stay intact, or by senators staying away long enough for the public to have enough time to study the legislation.