Wisconsin Democratic aide says governor must compromise

MADISON, Wisconsin Tue Feb 22, 2011 8:16am EST

Benjamin Frelka of Madison, Wisconsin poses for a portrait with his sign as he marches around the Capitol while protesters gather to protest against a proposed bill by Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin, February 21, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Benjamin Frelka of Madison, Wisconsin poses for a portrait with his sign as he marches around the Capitol while protesters gather to protest against a proposed bill by Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin, February 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

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MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers who left Wisconsin to stall passage of a controversial budget bill that has triggered mass protests may return if the governor compromises with public employees over collective bargaining, an aide to the Senate leader said on Sunday.

Wisconsin Senate minority leader Mark Miller left Wisconsin with 13 Democrat colleagues to stall a vote on Governor Scott Walker's plan to cut benefits and change collective bargaining rules for most Wisconsin public employees. That has brought thousands out in protest outside the state Capitol.

Miller's aide Mike Browne said the unions representing those workers have signaled their willingness to meet the governor, and are prepared to increase the amount of money they pay toward their health and benefit plans.

"He has before him the option to do what he wants financially. But he needs to compromise," Browne told Reuters.

Asked what it would take to get the 14 Senators including Miller back in Wisconsin and back in the State Capitol, Browne said: "The ball is in the governor's court."

Under the governor's bill, state workers must increase contributions to their pensions to 5.8 percent of salary, and double contributions to their health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent. This would result in a cut in take-home pay of about 8 percent.

But Browne said the governor must drop the additional proposed limits to collective bargaining by public employees contained in the budget bill.

Walker wants to limit collective bargaining to the issue of wages and cap salary increases to the rate of inflation, with a voter referendum needed for bigger increases.

His proposal also would prohibit employer collection of union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. Contracts would be limited to one year and collective bargaining units would have to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.

Some workers, such as fire and law enforcement employees, would be exempt from the collective bargaining changes. But it's unclear exactly how many workers across the state will be affected by the proposed measure.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which was founded here, counts 66,000 active and retired members in Wisconsin.

Protests against Walker's proposals grew in the past week. On Saturday, officials estimated about 55,000 demonstrators gathered. On Monday, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, representing some 98,000 public education employees, plans a rally on Monday.

Protests were far smaller on Sunday, with snow and sleet making conditions outside the Capitol cold and miserable.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher, Editing by Peter Bohan)

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