Fled From State, Wis. Democrat Says Why

The Democratic delegation of the Wisconsin State Senate fled the state this week rather than vote on a budget measure that would end most collective bargaining rights for public employees. Host Scott Simon talks with one member of the delegation, State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, about why he and his fellow Democrats retreated.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

CROWD: We want justice, we want justice.

SIMON: Chanting at the Wisconsin state capital in Madison this week where protestors denounced a proposal by Republican Governor Scott Walker that would make public employees pay more for pension and medical benefits and limit what their union can bargain for.

Wisconsin confronts enormous budget choices, like many other states, and has to confront painful choices. But on Thursday, as lawmakers prepared to vote on the proposal, 14 Democrats disappeared. Wisconsin State Senator John Erpenbach was among the 14 Democrats who fled the capital in Madison this week to delay a vote on that hotly debated budget measure. He joins us from - can you tell us where you are, senator?

State Senator JOHN ERPENBACH (Democrat, Wisconsin): Yeah, right now I'm in Chicago.

SIMON: A great place to be but why aren't you back in Madison, in the capital, voting?

Mr. ERPENBACH: Well, a better place to be actually would be back home but what we needed to do was we needed to slow down a process and hopefully try and make a couple of changes. The governor introduced what's called the budget repair bill and it's to fix about a $130 million hole in our state's budget. And state employees, public employees have to contribute now to their health care and to their pension. And it's a pretty substantial pay cut for the public employees and it's something that they're certainly willing to do.

But something else that's in there that caught everybody's eye and all of the sudden you have thousands of people protesting in Madison is this particular provision, which essentially strips all public unions of the right to collectively bargain their contracts. So, in order to slow things down, we know they needed 20 senators to have a vote and they only have 19 so we had to leave the state.

SIMON: Senator Erpenbach, are you violating your oath of office by leaving the state instead of taking a vote on a bill you don't like?

Mr. ERPENBACH: Oh no, absolutely not. If anything, I believe we are doing our job by standing up for those who are not being heard in the process right now. And so I can tell you, I've had thousands and thousands of contacts in my office about this and the majority of them are saying slow it down or stop the bill.

SIMON: I mean, the governor has to go through you in the legislature. Why not just stand up on your hind legs and try and defeat it?

Mr. ERPENBACH: Because there's all sorts of procedural motions that the Republicans can do to shut the debate down. And we're talking about decades and decades of union law that was crafted over the years here in the state of Wisconsin just, you know, thrown out the window. And we are a very strong union state. And this bill rips at the very fabric of who we are.

SIMON: To get specific, as I understand it, the bill would require public employees, except for firefighters and police, to pay 5.8 percent of their pension costs - they pay nothing now - and 12 percent of their health care premiums - up from 6 percent.

Mr. ERPENBACH: Right.

SIMON: Now, so many employees in the private sector have had to do just that one way or another. What's wrong with it?

Mr. ERPENBACH: Actually, what's going to happen is the governor's going to get this money - and the public employees are more than willing to pay their fair share. They took a 3 percent cut last year in pay. So, the money here isn't the issue. The issue is that the flat-out union-busting language that the government has included in what should be a very technical piece of legislation.

SIMON: Now, why do you say the governor's trying to break up the unions?

Mr. ERPENBACH: Because if you take a look at some language that he inserted in this, the only thing that a public union will be able to bargain now will be wages. They can no longer bargain their health care package, they can no longer bargain their retirement package, they can't bargain working conditions. Just about everything that they've had the ability to bargain is totally stripped away. And when you do that, you're essentially busting the union.

SIMON: Didn't Governor Walker run on a platform where he pledged to reduce state spending and really made no secret that he had problems with a lot of this.

Mr. ERPENBACH: Yeah, you know, he's a conservative guy, we all know that. But now that the election's over and he's governor of the entire state of Wisconsin, you know, we feel pretty strongly that it's his responsibility not to throw legislation out there, that it's really going to tear the state apart, but to try and bring us together and move forward in the same direction.

Again, just to give you an idea of the unions and the impact here in the state of Wisconsin. Deer hunting is a big thing. It goes back generations and generation and generations - just like unions do. In a lot of households in certain parts of the state of Wisconsin, they go back generation and generation. And to have it one day and to wake up the next morning and not have it is a pretty startling change.

SIMON: John Erpenbach, Democratic state senator in Wisconsin, although at the moment in Illinois. We spoke with him Friday afternoon. Thanks very much for being with us, senator.

Mr. ERPENBACH: All right. Thank you very much.

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