* “We’re willing to take this as long as it takes”-Walker
* Thousands demonstrate again against proposal (Updates with new demonstrations)
By James Kelleher
MADISON, Wis., Feb 20 (Reuters) - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power has triggered public protests, said on Sunday he expected Democrats who oppose his plan to return to the state and debate the issue this week.
Thousands demonstrated in the state capital, Madison, on Sunday to begin a second week of protests against the Republican governor’s plan, which opponents say would break the back of the state’s public employee unions. Supporters of the proposal say it is needed to control state debt and spending.
Wisconsin, where the first demonstrations were staged last Sunday outside the governor’s residence, has become the flashpoint for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights for government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.
Fourteen Democratic state senators, who have left the state to deny the Wisconsin Legislature a quorum needed to consider the proposal, have “failed to do their jobs,” Walker 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.”
One of the Democratic senators has said they are prepared to be away for weeks.
The Wisconsin State Assembly is due to take up the proposals on Tuesday. Republicans have a large enough majority in the Assembly to reach a quorum without the Democrats.
‘WE‘RE NOT GOING AWAY!’
Protesters banged drums inside the state Capitol building on Sunday and shouted, “We’re not going away!”
While crowds had dwindled from Saturday, when officials estimated about 55,000 demonstrators gathered, a major showing was expected on Monday, when the Wisconsin Education Association Council, representing some 98,000 public education employees, plans a rally.
Those backing the proposal were planning a nationwide demonstration on Tuesday, said Ned Ryun, the head of American Majority, which sponsored a rally on Saturday attended by about 5,000 supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement.
“What happens in Wisconsin will set the tone for the rest of the nation,” he said.
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession devastated 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.
Walker said the proposal was necessary so that Wisconsin’s municipalities could balance their budgets.
“I want to give those local governments the tools they need to balance the budgets now, and they can’t do that with the current collective bargaining laws in this state,” he said.
The Republican law 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.
He said the alternative was to lay off more than 10,000 public employees. (Editing by Tim Gaynor and Peter Cooney)