STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
We'll hear next from the man who wants a vote on the bargaining rights of public employees. Scott Fitzgerald is the Republican leader of the Wisconsin Senate. He backs Governor Scott Walker's plan to close a budget gap, in part by having state workers pay for more pensions and benefits. That sparked a week of protests, because the bill would also permanently limit public employee bargaining rights.
Senator Fitzgerald would've held a vote on this already, except the Democrats walked away.
Senator, good morning.
State Senator SCOTT FITZGERALD (Republican, Wisconsin): Good morning. Good to be with you.
INSKEEP: Glad you are. Glad you are.
Unions have already said that they will give the financial concessions you want. They say the budget is fixed here, effectively. Why is that not the end of the story?
State Sen. FITZGERALD: What Governor Walker is preparing to do next week is announce his full budget, which will include deep, deep cuts. These cuts are so significant, that both mayors and school board presidents will need a ton of flexibility.
And that's why, right now, we're trying to make the case that if we're going to be able to eliminate the $3.6 billion deficit that we're facing, these changes have to be made.
INSKEEP: But I want to make sure I understand this. Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, says - this is a quote here: "Money issues are off the table. Public employees have agreed to Governor Walker's pension and health care concessions, which he says will solve the budget challenge." Is she not telling the truth?
State Sen. FITZGERALD: She's telling half the truth. I mean, what she's not really acknowledging is that 80 percent of a school's budget, 75 percent of the county's budget in Wisconsin is made up of salaries and benefits.
INSKEEP: And she's saying she'll give you the concessions. I don't understand.
State Sen. FITZGERALD: Well - and even with those concessions, it still does not allow those locally elected officials the ability to be able to manage that. I mean, everything from workplace safety to some of the egregious items that are part of collective bargaining now in Wisconsin have a fiscal piece to it.
INSKEEP: This would end collective bargaining for pensions and benefits, which seems different than work rules to me.
State Sen. FITZGERALD: You know, the one thing we thought was reasonable is that, you know, the union should be able to sit down and work through wages. The rest of it can be decided by the school boards and the county boards and the elected officials that...
INSKEEP: Doesn't this even limit wage negotiations to a certain amount?
State Sen. FITZGERALD: Well, there's a cap on where they can go and, again, fits into the full governor's budget that gets us out of this mess.
INSKEEP: Senator Fitzgerald, I want to give you a full opportunity to answer the charge that's been made against your side, and this is the way that some people might put it at this time. A couple of years ago, a Democratic Congress in Washington was about to turn to health care, and they generated widespread protest from people who specifically said Democrats were taking advantage of a crisis to push their own agenda. Are you taking advantage of a crisis now to push against unions because they do not politically support you?
State Sen. FITZGERALD: No, this was created - these unions were created in 1970 by the Wisconsin Legislature, and over the last 40 years, what's happened is, through arbitration and other negotiations, the scales have been tipped in favor of the unions. And the problem with that is that we're hearing from local elected officials that are saying, listen, our hands are tied. Things have incrementally become worse and worse and worse in relationship to school boards and county boards being able to negotiate with the public employees.
INSKEEP: Now, Senator Fitzgerald, why is this an issue on which there should be no compromise? And if I'm not mistaken, that's the language that you've used and that the governor has used - no compromise.
State Sen. FITZGERALD: No compromise on backing off of the bill and where the bill is at right now. You know, when my Democrat colleagues decided to jump in the bus and drive to Chicago and are held up in a hotel down there, we moved through the legislative process. They had an opportunity to amend the bill in the second reading in the state Senate, and they decided not to participate in that.
In the assembly, they will begin tomorrow, and they will have a full debate on the bill and they will offer amendments. And I'm guessing that, you know, consideration for some of those amendments will be legit. Unfortunately, the Democrats in the Senate decided to take another route. And quite honestly, I think they've embarrassed themselves and shut down government.
INSKEEP: Have you been in times with any of your Democratic colleagues?
State Sen. FITZGERALD: I have. The Minority Leader Mark Miller called late last night, and once again told me that they would not participate in the Senate's actions. And we have a calendar set for tomorrow at 10 A.M., and the Republicans will be there conducting business - and business on other bills, I must say. And right now, it's one party making the decisions on all of those issues.
INSKEEP: Senator Fitzgerald, it's a pleasure speaking with you this morning. Thank you very much.
State Sen. FITZGERALD: Thank you. It was good to be with you.
INSKEEP: Scott Fitzgerald is the Republican leader of the state Senate in Wisconsin.