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When Will Wisconsin's 'Runaway Democrats' Come Back?

Laura J. Nelson |
March 1, 2011 | 6:49 p.m. PST

Senior Staff Reporter

Voting on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's contentious budget proposal hinges on 14 MIA senators — the state senate Democrats who fled to Illinois last week to avoid voting on a hot-button finance bill. 

The problem is, no one seems to know when they're coming back. 

The senators left last week during a disagreement over a budget reform bill, which would reduce collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. The Senate's 19 Republicans can't pass the bill alone, because finance votes requires a supermajority of 20 senators. 

The issue has since ballooned into an ideological stalemate. Right-wing supporters are applauding Gov. Walker and the Republicans for not backing down on the collective bargaining issue, while the Wisconsin protestors are cheering for the Democrats taking a stand.

"Both sides here have powerful constituencies that view them as heroes," said Dr. Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Backing down would be hard for either side, because they'd have to explain themselves to those strong constituencies." 

Some of the runaway Democrats invited Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican leader of the state Senate, to meet with them Monday in a secret meeting in Kenosha, Wis. Fitzgerald went with the unspoken understanding that he wouldn't bring state troopers, who had previously gone to the senators' homes to try and force them to come back to work. 

“They called me and said, ‘Would you meet us down at the state line?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’ll met you down there,'" Fitzgerald said. "... It was a good discussion and was productive.”

The talks were the first dialogue between Wisconsin's GOP leadership and what Franklin called the "runaway Democrats."  

Dialogue aside, the stalemate continues: Democrats have said they're willing to increase state employee payments to medical insurance and pension plans – which would cut employee costs 8 percent statewide – in exchange for removing union bargaining restrictions. But on that point, Republicans won't budge.

Instead, the GOP is doing "a variety of small things to make life more difficult for the Democrat senators," Franklin said. 

Although finance bills require 20 Senators for a vote, other types of bills don't, so the Republicans are re-introducing contentious bills that the Democrats have opposed in the past. One bill, which would require voters to show photo ID, had moved forward since the senators left week. But the bill fell through because IDs subsidized by the state would require financial regulation, Franklin said. 

Since many Democrat staffers' bosses are in Illinois, Fitzgerald is now approving their timesheets, which has made those staffers uneasy, Franklin said. The 14 senators no longer have access to direct deposit, meaning they have to go to the Senate building if they want to get paid.

And the Democrat staffers still working at the Senate are no longer allowed to use the building's copy machines.

To reach senior staff reporter Laura J. Nelson, click here. Or follow her on Twitter: @laura_nelson.



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