MADISON, Wisc. (Reuters) - Republican Governor Scott Walker on Monday gave absent Democratic lawmakers an ultimatum to return to Wisconsin within 24 hours and vote on a proposal to reduce the power of public sector unions or the state would miss out on a huge debt restructuring.
Wisconsin Democrats meanwhile drew fresh support from President Barack Obama and a big union filed a legal complaint against the governor, as a poll suggested he would lose to his Democratic opponent if the 2010 election were held now.
Walker stepped up the pressure on 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state to avoid a vote on his bill. On Tuesday he will unveil a two-year state budget he said cuts $1 billion from funding to local governments and schools.
What began as one small state trying to rewrite the rules of labor relations has blown up into what could be the biggest confrontation with American labor unions since then-President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
For the second time since the controversy erupted, President Obama weighed into the debate on Monday, criticizing the Wisconsin plan without mentioning it by name.
“I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon,” Obama told the nation’s governors gathered in Washington.
“We’re not going to attract the best teachers for our kids, for example, if they only make a fraction of what other professionals make,” the president said.
In response, Walker said through his press secretary that Obama misunderstood the situation, and “most federal employees do not have collective bargaining for wages and benefits while our plan allows it for base pay ... the average federal worker pays twice as much for health insurance as what we are asking.”
Some pro-union demonstrators continued to occupy the State Capitol building after refusing to leave the previous day, but Wisconsin authorities and police barred most protesters from entering the building on Monday, leaving hundreds massed outside in frigid temperatures.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the closing “presumptively unconstitutional” and urged the Wisconsin Department of Administration to reopen the Capitol Building to the general public.
Officials plan to restrict access again on Tuesday, the day Walker gives his budget address.
“There will be some limited access,” said Cullen Werwie, press secretary to Walker. Detailed plans for access will be announced on Tuesday morning.
Hundreds of protesters had occupied the building from February 15, and many were allowed to camp on the marble floors overnight once again on Sunday, defying capitol police.
Walker’s budget proposal brought out an estimated 70,000 protesters on Saturday, the biggest protest crowd in the capital since the Vietnam War, and a poll released on Monday suggested that if the 2010 election could be replayed the Wisconsin governor might lose.
The Public Policy Polling survey found Walker’s Democratic opponent Tom Barrett now getting 52 percent and Walker 45. Walker won with 52 percent in November. The shift came mainly from union households.
Walker’s proposal would require public sector employees to pay more for pensions and health care, strip some of their unions of bargaining rights except for wages up to the rate of inflation, and require yearly union recertification votes.
It was approved by the state Assembly last week but is stalled in the Senate because of the 14 Democrats’ absence.
The proposal includes a restructuring of state debt Walker says would save $165 million. He said this deal was in doubt if the Democrats did not return and that could mean more painful and aggressive spending cuts in the very near future.
Under Walker’s proposal, Wisconsin’s general obligation bonds would be restructured and that would push debt service payments due by March 15 into future years.
Democrats criticized Walker’s estimates, quoting a report from a state fiscal analyst saying the restructuring would add more than $42 million of interest payments over the long term.
Walker has said he hoped to delay sending layoff notices to state workers if the legislature makes progress on fixing the budget deficit, according to website wispolitics.com.
But to postpone the layoffs, Walker said it will be necessary that his budget repair bill, including the move to end collective bargaining, go into effect by April 1. There has been speculation he would send out layoff notices to more than 1,000 state workers if no progress was made soon.
In a complaint filed on Monday with a state employment commission, the Wisconsin State Employees Union (WSEU) accused Walker of unfair labor practices for refusing to bargain.
“Instead of trying to find real solutions to the challenges facing the state, the governor is attempting to dictate terms. This not only in ineffective, it’s against the law,” AFSCME Council 24 Executive Director Marty Beil said in a statement.
The union asked the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission to require the state to bargain with the WSEU and to extend the current contract until the matter is resolved.
Additional reporting by Stefanie Carano in Madison and Wendell Marsh in Washington; Editing by Jerry Norton