March 9, 2011- Capping a dramatic turn of events, the Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday night passed a new, stripped-down "budget repair bill" — which now excludes all the fiscal elements of the original budget repair bill, and simply includes the original's provisions to roll back the collective bargaining and organizational rights of Wisconsin's public employee unions.
With all 14 Democrats absent, having fled the state weeks ago in order to block the three-fifths budget quorum, the bill passed by an 18-1 margin, with only moderate Republican Dale Schultz voting no.
Gov. Scott Walker (R) has released this statement:
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused. In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."
Meanwhile, state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate has released this statement, vowing to recall all those Republican state Senators who are eligible under the state's recall laws, which require at least one year of a term to be completed — and to recall Walker next year:
"Using tactics that trample on the traditions of our Legislature, the Republican leadership has betrayed our state. Republicans have rubber-stamped the desire of the Koch Brothers and their godshead Scott Walker to cripple Wisconsin's middle class and lower benefits and wages for every single wage-earner in our state. The vote does nothing to create jobs, does nothing to strengthen our state, and shows finally and utterly that this never was about anything but raw political power. We now put our total focus on recalling the eligible Republican senators who voted for this heinous bill. And we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall."
Earlier, Republicans hastily convened a surprise conference committee, which met for about five minutes to approve the revised bill on a party-line 4-2 vote. The state Assembly, which had previously passed the original bill, is set to take up the revised bill on Thursday.
State Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D) who has been in Illinois, released this statement:
"In thirty minutes, 18 State Senators undid fifty years of civil rights in Wisconsin.
"Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.
"Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people.
"Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government."
The move is likely to have an enormous political impact in the state, as unions remain an important base of the Democratic Party organization in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the unions and Democrats have been actively organizing recalls of Republican state legislators — leveraging the power of the tens of thousands of people who have protested the bill, and numerous opinion polls showing that Wisconsin voters oppose breaking the unions.
Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt has released a statement, entitled "Statement on Scott Walker and Republicans' Despicable, Extreme, Anti-Democratic Activities." Key quotes:
Tonight's trampling of the democratic process in Wisconsin shows that Scott Walker and the Republicans have been lying throughout this entire process and we have been telling the truth – that NONE of the provisions that attacked workers' rights had anything to do with the budget.
Scott Walker and the Republicans' ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable, and their willingness to shred 50 years of labor peace, bipartisanship, and Wisconsin's democratic process to pass a bill that 74% of Wisconsinites oppose is beyond reprehensible and possibly criminal."
So where do things go from here? I am a former six-year Wisconsin resident — having travelled there to attend the state university in Madison, and stuck around for another two years after graduation — and was recently reporting there on assignment for this story. So as someone who absorbed Wisconsin's culture as an outsider from the Northeast, perhaps I have something to add.
As I've previously written, the Democratic Party in Wisconsin is, to an extent that is not true in most other states, a genuine labor party — a party that is intertwined with unions at the institutional level, with many politicians who have also been union officials or done legal work with unions, and which speaks for organized labor in key debates. They in turn compete with the Republican Party, which represents business interests as embodied by the state's Chamber group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, in what has until now been a sometimes uneasy but nevertheless predictable political system.
In short, unions in Wisconsin are not just economic organizations made up of their respective workers — they are political institutions that are a major part of the state. As such, a change to the state's union laws that would threaten the existence of organized labor would in turn threaten the existence of the Democratic Party itself in Wisconsin, as people have known it for over half a century — something that state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) may have accidentally alluded to earlier today.