Wis. Budget-Repair Bill Exempts Public Safety Unions

After seven days of protests by union members opposing Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip collective bargaining rights, the issue is at a stalemate. Police and firefighters are marching with their counterparts, even though public safety unions aren't included in the bill.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's get an update now from Wisconsin and the standoff between the Republican governor and state workers. The state's Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the bill that would take away most collective bargaining rights of many state employees. The Republicans who control the state Senate say they will go back to work today, despite the absence of the Democrats.

NPR's David Schaper has the latest from the state capital, Madison.

DAVID SCHAPER: Wisconsin's Republican Governor, Scott Walker, is showing no sign of backing down. He held a late afternoon news conference yesterday, to continue to push for passage, this week, of his so-called Budget Repair Bill. Among other things, it would increase health insurance and pension contributions for most public employees in the state, and strip away most of their collective bargaining rights. And Walker refuses to discuss any kind of compromise, even though public employee unions have offered to give him the financial concessions he wants.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): We're broke. We don't have any more money. We have a $3.6 billion budget deficit and you really can't negotiate when you don't have money to negotiate on. For us to be involved in good faith negotiations, we'd have to offer something. We don't have anything to offer because we don't have any money.

(Soundbite of protesters chanting: Kill the bill!)

SCHAPER: But as the governor hardens his resolve, so do the public employees and their supporters, protesting day and night inside and outside of the state capitol. The chanting, the speeches, the shouting through bull horns and drumming on buckets continues almost non-stop -ear-splittingly so, at times.

But there is a time each and every day when the chanting quiets down a bit and a march begins - as a long line of union fire fighters and police officers somberly walks through the crowd inside and then outside around the Capitol.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you, thank you.

SCHAPER: The nurses, teachers, and other government workers are thankful because these public safety officers don't have to do this. They are exempted from the budget repair bill. Mahlon Mitchell is president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association.

Mr. MAHLON MITCHELL (President, Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association): We do not have to be here but we want to be here with our union brothers and sisters from all over the state and let them know that we're with 'em, and we're going to do whatever it takes so we can get these collective bargaining provisions out of this bill.

SCHAPER: Mitchell and other police and fire union members say they believe they're left out of the bill because their jobs are inherently more dangerous than those of other public employees, and that the governor promised to treat public safety officers differently.

Some Democrats suggest there were political considerations - as Milwaukee's police and fire unions endorsed Republican Walker in last year's election. But Governor Walker says he exempts police officers and firefighters, only because he doesn't want any of them to ever walk off the job in protest.

Governor WALKER: We can by no means ever have a gap when it comes to public safety. I can't have the possibility, anywhere in the state Wisconsin, that if there was a fire or a crime or anything else that there would be one gap, one interruption in services out there.

SCHAPER: Walker continues to insist he is not union busting and that he needs both to increase health care and pension contributions for public employees and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights to save the state and local governments money, now and in the future. And he says the bill needs to be approved this week, because it includes other cost cutting provisions, including one to refinance state debt to save more than $160 million, savings that might be lost if the bill is further delayed. Walker says that could force him to lay off as many as 1500 state workers. So he is, again, urging Democratic state senators who are staying away from the capitol to prevent a vote on the bill to return to Madison.

Governor WALKER: For those 14 Senate Democrats, you've had your time. Now, it's time to come home.

SCHAPER: With the nation watching to see which side flinches first, Wisconsin's Senate Republicans will be in session today to tackle non-budgetary items. And in the lower chamber, the state assembly, Republicans have a large enough majority to take up the controversial budget repair bill. So the Republicans are expected to bring it to the floor today for debate. Democrats say they'll be there to offer hundreds of amendments and drag out the debate. So if it passes, it could take a while.

David Schaper, NPR News, in Madison, Wisconsin.

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