Wisconsin stalemate could drag on for months

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin's budget stalemate over union bargaining rights shows no sign of resolution - and it could be a long wait.

The governor isn't budging. AWOL Democrats aren't planning to come back. And, despite talk of deadlines and threats of mass layoffs, the state doesn't really have to pass a budget to pay its bills until at least May. Even then, there may be other options that could extend the standoff for months.

"This is a battle to the death," said Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Unless one party can come up with a compromise that the other party will buy, which I doubt, this really could go on indefinitely. I could see this going on until the summer."

The confrontation began Feb. 11, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed legislation that would strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights as part of a plan to fix a budget deficit projected to be $137 million by July.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the Legislature, hightailed it for the Illinois border on the day the Senate was to adopt the bill. Their absence left the chamber one member short of the quorum needed for a vote.

Two weeks later, Republicans are becoming increasingly creative in their attempts to lure the 14 Democrats home. They've tried cutting off access to copying machines for their staff and requiring lawmakers to pick up their checks at the Capitol rather than having them deposited directly in bank accounts.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a resolution imposing a $100 fine for each day the Democrats remain on the run. Republican senators were also assigned to oversee the staff members of the missing Democrats.

State Sen. Chris Larson said the fines show that Republicans are becoming "increasingly petty." He said none of the Democrats flinched after learning of the move. He was resolved to stay away as long as necessary.

"In fact, my family just brought down clothes for me," he said. "We're committed to this cause."

The bill passed the Republican-controlled Assembly last week after a nearly three-day filibuster. Republicans in the Senate say they have enough votes to pass it once Democrats return.

Behind the scenes, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald met earlier in the week with two of the missing Democrats to discuss ways they could be persuaded to come back. Fitzgerald said Wednesday he was told by one of the Democrats that as many as six of them had planned to return that day, but then decided against it.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said Democrats would eventually be back to fight the full budget plan Walker introduced Tuesday to slash state aid for schools and local governments by about $1 billion.

But when will they actually set foot in the chamber? Miller said that was a day-to-day decision.

"We are currently no closer to coming back than we were a week ago," he said.

Whether the Democrats show up or not, the lights in the Capitol will stay on, snowplows will continue to clear streets and the wheels of state government will keep turning.

Senate Republicans hold a 19-14 majority, but without that all-important 20th vote, they can't pass anything that spends money. That's what held up the budget bill, since its main purpose was to refinance debt and force state workers to pay more for their benefits.

Instead, the Senate has been forced to take up lesser matters: a resolution commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl and a measure designating Jan. 26 as Bob Uecker Day, for instance.

It's not as if the Democrats' absence has kept them silent. They're still firing off press releases, doing interviews on national television and - in the case of Sen. Jon Erpenbach - appearing on "The Colbert Report" in a segment poking fun at how the group is hiding in plain sight.

Democrats say they left the state to avoid being compelled to return by Wisconsin police, but state law prevents them from being arrested simply for not showing up to work. Among the group is 83-year-old Sen. Fred Risser, the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country, with 54 years in office.

Walker has rejected every offer of compromise floated by unions, Democrats and even a Republican state senator. All of the proposals would balance the budget without permanently eliminating collective bargaining rights.

During the stalemate, the governor has issued a number of threats and ominous deadlines trying to force Democrats to return. A large part of his proposal to balance the budget this year was based on refinancing state debt to save $165 million, but the deadline to do so came and went Tuesday.

Missing that deadline, Walker said, raises the risk of deeper cuts and widespread layoffs of state workers, although he's refused to offer specifics on who and what would be targeted.

Walker can't order the layoffs of teachers or other local workers, and even if he were to go after state employees, it would be at least 31 days before anyone lost a job.

Plus, if the budget bill passes, court challenges seem inevitable. The Milwaukee city attorney has suggested parts of the bill are unconstitutional because they interfere with the city's authority over its pension plan.

Some voters have seized on the standoff to try to remove politicians on both sides. Five Democratic state senators and eight of their Republican colleagues have been targeted by recall attempts. If recall organizers gather enough signatures in the next two months, the lawmakers must face another election.

Budget stalemates are nothing new in Wisconsin. In 2007, the state did not pass a budget until mid-October. Government didn't shut down during the impasse, and no one is even hinting at that possibility now.

The biggest problem for Walker is figuring out how to pay for the state's Medicaid bills when the program runs out of money sometime in May. But even when that happens, federal law would prevent the state from cutting off services to the roughly 1 million low-income, disabled and elderly people who depend on the program.

The most likely scenario would be for the state to delay payments to providers into the next budget year, which begins in July.

azcentral.com, Wed Mar 2 2011
Byline: Scott Bauer

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