UPDATE 1-Wisconsin gov. sees Democrats returning to debate plan

Sun Feb 20, 2011 2:43pm EST

Related Topics

* Won't compromise on plan to limit collective bargaining

* Thousands demonstrate, vast majority against proposal

* "We're willing to take this as long as it takes"-Walker (Adds comments from teachers' union, West Virginia union)

By James Kelleher

MADISON, Wis., Feb 20 (Reuters) - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power has triggered mass public protests, said on Sunday he expects the Democrats who oppose his plan will concede to debate the issue early this week.

Fourteen state Democratic senators, who have left the state to deny the Wisconsin legislature a quorum needed to consider the controversial proposal, have "failed to do their jobs," the Republican governor said on Fox Network's "Fox News Sunday."

"My hope is that cooler minds will prevail and by some time earlier this coming week they'll show up for their job," Walker said. "Democracy is not about hiding out in another state. It's about showing up here in the capital and making the case there, and for us, we're willing to take this as long as it takes."

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated last week against Walker's proposed legislation, which supporters say is needed to control state debt and spending and opponents contend would break the back of state worker unions.

Despite cold temperatures and wet snow, opponents of the proposal were planning a demonstration on Sunday in the state capital, where local cab drivers and dispatchers were shoveling snow to clear the way for the rally.

"If public sector workers don't have collective bargaining rights, it will set the stage to attack private sector workers," said John McNamara, Union Cab marketing manager.

"In the meantime, if the wages of these public workers, who are the largest work force in this area, go down, it affects us. These are our customers," he added.

NATIONAL DEBATE

Wisconsin is the flash-point for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.

U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession decimated their finances. In addition to Wisconsin, other states like Texas, Arizona and Ohio are relying mainly on cuts in spending to balance the books, while Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.

Public sector workers in West Virginia, in support of the Wisconsin protests, will rally to demand better pay and improved working conditions, a union spokesman said on Sunday.

The Wisconsin State Assembly is due to take up the proposals on Tuesday, after the Presidents Day holiday. Republicans have a large enough majority to quorum in the Assembly without the Democrats.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, an umbrella organization that represents some 98,000 public education employees, was planning rallies for Monday and Tuesday.

"My hope is before Tuesday enough Republicans will recognize this proposal is over-reaching and the support for this proposal wanes. I've been told some Republicans will reconsider," State Assemblyman and Minority Leader Peter Barca said on Saturday.

Officials estimated about 55,000 demonstrators in the state capital on Saturday, but no more than 5,000 appeared to be there for a rally backed by Tea Party groups, the first appearance by members of the limited-government movement.

Walker's proposal would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions. It also would end government collection of union dues, let workers opt out of unions and require unions to hold recertification votes every year.

Union and Democratic leaders say they are willing to compromise on benefits if Republicans back off on their bid to weaken collective bargaining, but so far Walker and his legislative allies have stood firm.

Walker estimates the state budget deficit for the rest of this fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.

Walker said the alternative is to lay off more than 10,000 public employees. (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Peter Bohan and Philip Barbara)

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