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Democrats leave Wisconsin to protest union curbs
MADISON, Wisconsin |
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin state Senate Democrats boycotting a vote on a plan to curb the union rights of public employees left the state on Thursday in an attempt to force majority Republicans to negotiate a compromise.
Democrat Sen. Jon Erpenbach told WisPolitics, an online news service, that he believed all 14 Senate Democrats were out of the state by early Thursday afternoon. There are 19 Senate Republicans, and a quorum of 20 is needed to vote on the issue.
Erpenbach would not disclose where he was or how many of the Democratic senators were with him.
"We were left with no choice," Erpenbach said. "The question is when are the Republicans going to sit down seriously with the other side on this issue and try to work something out," Erpenbach told WisPolitics.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed sharply curbing the bargaining rights of public unions in order to make immediate budget savings. The move sparked outrage among union workers who protested at the Wisconsin state house this week.
Capitol police estimated 25,000 people, many carrying signs protesting the Republican plan, converged on the state Capitol building on Thursday, including 5,000 packed inside the building. The protests, which began on Monday, have grown in numbers every day this week, police said.
The proposal was to be debated and possibly come to a vote in the state Senate on Thursday. Republicans also hold a majority in the state House of Representatives.
Walker issued a statement Thursday calling on Democratic legislators to return, saying their actions were "disrespectful."
"Out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process, I am calling on Senate Democrats to show up to work today, debate legislation and cast their vote," Walker said.
Many schools throughout the state closed Thursday -- the second consecutive day in the capitol of Madison -- after the state's largest teachers' union called for members to come to Madison and join protests around and inside the state Capitol.
"This is not about protecting our pay and benefits. It is about our right to collectively bargain," teacher's union President Mary Bell said.
A component of Walker's plan that calls for a bond restructuring put the legislation on the fast track for approval. The governor wants the state to push principal payments on its general obligation bonds into future years to save $165 million.
Because those payments are due on March 15, the bill must be passed by February 25 to allow for time to sell the debt. The deal would involve about $210 million of bonds priced through lead underwriter Citigroup, according to Frank Hoadley, the state's capital finance director.
Senate Joint Finance Committee co-chair Alberta Darling, said the choice facing Wisconsin was either to get the concessions from unions, or lay off public employees.
"It's not like we're choosing to do this. We are broke," she said.
The battle over public employee unions is gaining national attention, with both liberal and conservative talk shows highlighting the issue and saying that this is a national fight over union rights and power.
Ed Schultz, a nationally-known liberal radio talk show host who also has a show on MSNBC cable television, aired his show from Madison on Thursday.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; reporting by Jeff Mayers and Karen Pierog; editing by Greg McCune)
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