Last night I was just getting out of work at my café job when a text message came through telling me that Republicans in the Legislature planned to split the budget repair bill into two parts, with the idea that they could then vote on the "non-fiscal" portions without Senate Democrats present. They were to vote on this at 6 p.m.
I got the text just after 5 p.m., when word about the vote was made public. My first thought was, "Holy crap I need to get to the Capitol right now!" My second thought, following shortly on the heels of the first, was, "Holy crap, I'm pretty sure this is illegal!"
Because, you see, Wisconsin has a little thing called open meeting laws. Any such meeting/vote must be announced to the public at least 24 hours in advance (two in an emergency), and the public is to be allowed in to observe the proceedings. None of that happened. We had one hour to haul ass down to the Capitol, and even then the court order violating security was still in place so that only a trickle of people were being let inside.
The new bill removes fiscal elements of the proposal but still curbs collective bargaining and increases employee payments in pension and health benefits. The changes would amount to an approximate 8 percent pay cut for public workers.
After the session, Senate Republicans scattered, leaving no one to explain how they managed to pass components of the bill that seemed to have a fiscal impact, including changes in pensions and benefits, without the 20 senators needed to vote on fiscal matters. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he had consulted with the Legislature's attorneys and "every item in tonight's bill follows the letter of the law."
So not only did the move violate open meeting laws, but it appears to have violated the very rules Republicans were seeking to get around by splitting the bill into two parts. You can view this supposedly "non-fiscal" portion of the bill here.
Sen. Bob Jauch was not wrong when he called this "an act of legislative thuggery." John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., said that "the Senate's improper and illegal action will be challenged in court," which I sincerely hope many organizations follow through on.
It strips bare for all to see just how unconcerned with the basic rights of Wisconsin citizens the Republicans responsible for the move are. And while I give some credit to Sen. Dale Schultz for being the lone no vote against the bill, I have to wonder where his voice of dissent was before it came to this most extreme measure. The cynic in me says that his colleagues probably gave him permission to vote no to help him save face with constituents overwhelmingly opposed to the bill, since it wouldn't matter and they'd pass the bill anyway.
We need actual leadership and a willingness to stand up against bullying and these kinds of slimy legislative moves, but I've yet to see any displayed by a single member of the Republican caucus.
Meanwhile, the people have once again taken over their Capitol building, despite attempts to keep them out that were clearly in violation of the court order handed down last week. When I arrived at the Capitol only the King St. entrance was open, and people were only being let through in very small numbers.
Then, when the vote finished and the Legislature adjourned, the doors were closed with thousands remaining outside still wishing to join those who'd already made it inside and were then refusing to leave. Rumors flew that Assembly Democrats were attempting to start a hearing that would go all night and allow the building to remain open, but the police guarding the entrance continued to refuse entry.
People chanted and surrounded doorways as a stream of cars circled the Capitol honking their horns in time with the "This is what democracy looks like!" chant. I've never heard the area so raucous, so angry, and yet everything blessedly remained peaceful.
Small groups of protesters were able to enter the building via the windows of sympathetic legislators but most were quickly shut down by police. And then, finally, the State Street doors were somehow breached and streams of people poured into the building. The police on the ground floor suddenly disappeared and the Capitol was once again fully occupied by the masses.
I read later that, after the door breach, the DOA made the decision not to attempt closing the building down or to remove protesters at all which seems wise, given the size of the crowd and the logistical clusterf**k that would have resulted if they'd tried to forcibly remove anyone.
It was an intense evening. The mood was this strange mix of elation at finally being back in the building in force, and absolute frustration and anger at how blatantly their rights were being trampled on by the Republicans. The energy behind the protests had been noticeably waning at the beginning of this week, so I must give credit to the GOP for reinvigorating the cause. If their goal was to put an end to all of this, of course, they failed spectacularly.
Amid everything else, this latest move also shows very clearly how the collective bargaining portions of the bill were never about the budget they were about union busting, plain and simple.
What's worse, the bill passed last night contains a provision allowing the state to fire employees for striking or walking out, completely eliminating the hard-won compromise deal that had given public employees the right to organize in the first place if they would, in return, agree not to go on strike.
This has prevented Wisconsin from having to suffer through work stoppages like the kinds that often cripple countries like France. It was a good deal, and the Republicans have officially pissed on it.
I strongly doubt that any public employee wants to do a general strike. Most folks just want to do their jobs, serve the state they love, and bring home a paycheck to support themselves and their families. But now, when it's been made so abundantly clear that the ruling party has no respect for them, no intention of negotiating or compromising, and no compunction about dragging their rights through the mud, I would hardly blame them for choosing to strike.
What other options have been left to them?
Gov. Scott Walker and everyone going along with his massive power grab should be ashamed of their cowardice but it would appear that shame is not an emotion any of them are familiar with. So it is up to us, the people of Wisconsin, to see them removed from office, never to serve as our "representatives" again. It is up to us to show the world that we will not stand for this blatant disregard for the values and rights for which our ancestors fought so hard to establish.
Dump the bosses off your backs! Kick the bums out!
- Pledge your support for the effort to recall the 8 GOP Senators
- Pledge to recall Scott Walker when his time comes
- Attend the rallies at the Capitol and around the state planned for today/this week!
- Write or call Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's office to complain about violation of open meeting law: P.O. Box 7857, Madison, WI 53707-7857 | Fax: 608-267-2779, Phone: 608-266-1221