Wisconsin's Walker dismisses Democratic overture

MADISON, Wisconsin Mon Mar 7, 2011 4:11pm EST

A protester holds a flag as demonstrators continue to occupy the state Capitol in protest against proposed budget cuts in Madison, Wisconsin February 27, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

A protester holds a flag as demonstrators continue to occupy the state Capitol in protest against proposed budget cuts in Madison, Wisconsin February 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

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MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker dismissed as "ridiculous" a request on Monday from the leader of absent Senate Democrats to meet and negotiate a compromise in their standoff over Republican plans to limit public sector union powers.

At a news conference in Madison, the new Republican governor who has sparked nationwide protests with his efforts to strip public sector unions of most collective bargaining rights, showed no signs of backing down.

The Wisconsin state Assembly has approved Walker's plan but all 14 Wisconsin Senate Democrats left the state for Illinois on February 17 rather than allow a quorum to vote on the measure. There has been a stalemate ever since.

Walker blasted the leader of Senate Democrats, Mark Miller, as an obstacle to getting a deal for some of the Democrats to return and vote on the proposal.

"We had progress and we thought we had the framework of a pathway home for those 14 Senate Democrats, but again, Senator Miller stood in the way," Walker said.

The proposals have touched off weeks of pro-union rallies at the Capitol Building in Madison and around the country to protest the changes which Walker said are needed to fix a state budget deficit.

Miller's letter had appealed to Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to sit down and reach a bipartisan solution to the differences.

But the Republicans were defiant, saying again that they would not change the core of the proposal to curtail public sector union powers. Areas of compromise would only be considered on matters to do with the state's budget for fiscal 2012 and 2013, they said.

Walker wants public sector unions to make increased payments for health care and pension benefits. But the most controversial proposal would limit public sector union bargaining to wages, and only up to the rate of inflation. Unions also would have to allow a vote of their membership every year to continue to represent workers.

On Friday, Walker issued notices warning state workers of mass layoffs in early April if Democrats do not approve the measures to curtail public sector union powers.

Most opinion polls show that while most Americans, and Wisconsin voters, believe that government workers should contribute more toward pensions and health care, they support collective bargaining rights for unions.

Wisconsin has become the center of national attention because labor unions fear approval of the restrictions could lead to other state doing so.

Ohio's Senate last week approved restrictions on public sector unions, and similar measures are under consideration in several other states including Tennessee, Indiana, Kansas and Idaho.

(Writing by David Bailey, Editing by Greg McCune).

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