Wisconsin Schools Closed As Budget Battle Ensues

The Wisconsin state Assembly intends to vote on Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to strip collective bargaining rights from nearly all state employees. Thousands of teachers and others have descended on the Capitol, forcing schools to close due to high absences. Dozens of people have spent the night in the Capitol as a sign of protest. Host Michel Martin speaks with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, Jason Stein, who's s covering the story.

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, often warned allies that without him the country would be ruled by radical Islamists likely led by the banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. But now that Mubarak is out of power, how will the Muslim Brotherhood influence Egypt's future? We'll hear directly from a member of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to another uprising of sorts. This one in the state of Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of protest)

MARTIN: Tens of thousands of angry demonstrators have descended on Wisconsin state capitol in Madison. Today marks a fourth straight day of those protests. Workers are furious about a bill being pushed by the state's new Republican governor through the Republican legislature that will strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Governor Scott Walker says the bill is a way to tighten his proposed state budget which shows a deficit of more than $3 billion over the next two years.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): We've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit. We've got a balance. And I think for most people in the middle class outside of government, they understand what we're asking for is still a lot less than what most of our average taxpayers are paying.

MARTIN: We wanted to find out more about the showdown in Wisconsin, so we've called upon Jason Stein. He's a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And he's with us on the phone from the capitol in Madison. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JASON STEIN (Reporter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): Good day. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, Jason, can you just explain, though, first of all, how the governor feels or why the governor feels that taking away the collective bargaining rights of most of these employees will address the budget deficit. What's the connection?

Mr. STEIN: One thing he says is that the state doesn't have time to bargain over health and pension benefits, so he says, you know, the state needs to impose those concessions right away through the lawmaking process, which governs collective bargaining in the state. In other words, state unions are creatures of state law. He also says that by taking other things off the bargaining table that will free up state and local governments to run more efficiently.

You know, the other side of what unions say is that he could achieve the financial concessions that he wants in the short term very quickly and that, you know, some of the other bargaining rights that he's reaching for won't have any short-term savings for the state.

MARTIN: Now, everyone is not covered by this proposal. Is that right? That there are certain public employee groups who are not subjected to this. Who are they and why is that?

Mr. STEIN: Local police, local firefighters, state patrol troopers are not covered by this proposal. But then other people that we might think of in certain ways is serving a public safety function are. So, the capitol police, for instance, who are helping keep the peace here in this capitol in these very raucous demonstrations are covered. Prison guards are covered. University police who are also here at the capitol are covered.

And, you know, basically what the governor said is I've exempted those groups that I feel I don't have a good plan for to provide for public safety if they're not on the job.

MARTIN: And we can hear in the background, I just want to have you tell us what it is that we're starting to hear in the background. You can hear the noise level is starting to pick up. What's going on there?

Mr. STEIN: That's right. We're here in the capitol press room, which is only a few feet away from the state Senate, which was a scene of all the drama yesterday and they're already promising to do that again.

MARTIN: This issue is getting some national attention. President Obama, for example, invited a reporter from a Milwaukee television station to the White House to publicly say that he understands, you know, the budget pressure in Wisconsin. But he criticized the governor's plan to strip the employees of their bargaining rights. Here it is.

President BARACK OBAMA: Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.

MARTIN: How is that point of view being received in Wisconsin?

Mr. STEIN: Well, it certainly would resonate with the union demonstrators who are here at the capitol. I mean, that's certainly what they're arguing. And, you know, the governor has said we need to impose these concessions immediately and we need to go even farther than that to give more flexibility to state and local governments.

I mean, one thing that you might add here as well is the governor's talking about making very, very substantial cuts in state aid to local governments and to schools. So the governor has sort of held out this greater flexibility in working with their employees as an olive branch, I suppose, if you will, to those agencies that are going to be losing things of great value that the states provided for many years.

MARTIN: And tell me - public opinion generally, to the degree that you feel you can say at this point. Obviously these demonstrations are very attention-getting and people have very strong feelings about this, but do you have any sense of sort of more broadly across the state, where is public opinion on this?

Mr. STEIN: Well, I mean I can tell you in terms of public interest, our newspaper has covered in recent weeks a Super Bowl victory for the Green Bay Packers, which are almost a religious institution in Wisconsin. And a historic blizzard and I'm told that our stories on the state budget crisis are meeting or even surpassing those levels. So, I mean, it's clearly as big a news story as we've seen in Wisconsin in some time in the political sphere.

MARTIN: And just to clarify, how much support does the governor have in the legislature?

Mr. STEIN: Well, he's got tremendous support because Republicans have solid majorities in both houses, 19 to 14 in the Senate and in the 96-member assembly they have 57 seats. So, you know, the governor has a lot of support in the legislature, but obviously it's a very controversial proposal, so he needs every bit he can get.

MARTIN: Jason Stein is a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He's been covering the protest in Madison, Wisconsin and we're talking to him from the capitol there. You can hear the protest gearing up in the background. Jason, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. STEIN: It was my pleasure. Thanks.

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