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Wisconsin Senate passes union limits despite Democratic walkout

From Ed Lavandera, CNN
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Wisconsin Senate passes anti-union bill
  • NEW: Police union leader says local law enforcement on alert for further protests
  • Union says Walker has been "lying throughout this entire process"
  • Collective bargaining limits pass state Senate
  • Republicans cleared the way by removing finances from the bill

Madison, Wisconsin (CNN) -- Wisconsin's Republican-led state Senate passed Gov. Scott Walker's proposed restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees Wednesday, getting around a Democratic walkout by stripping financial provisions from the bill.

"Tonight, the Senate will be passing the items in the Budget Repair Bill that we can with the 19 members who actually do show up and do their jobs," Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the chamber's Republican majority leader, said in a statement announcing the move.

The Senate's 14 Democrats had fled to Illinois to prevent the chamber from attaining a quorum and passing the collective bargaining measures, which they have called an unnecessary attack on the rights of public employees. Republicans were able to move ahead by voting only on the nonfinancial aspects of Walker's proposed bill, which requires fewer members for a quorum.

"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," Walker said in a statement on the vote. "In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government."

But the move drew howls of outrage from outside the chamber, where pro-union demonstrators chanted "Shame" and "You lied to Wisconsin" as the bill passed. Thousands more began to converge on the building, and chorus of horns from passing cars echoed in the streets around the Capitol after the vote.

Some protesters remained inside the Capitol building a couple hours after the vote. Most of the protesters who had gathered outside earlier in the day were gone. However, authorities expect demonstrations to pick up again Thursday.

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Janes Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said officers with the Madison police department and Dane County sheriff's deputies have been placed on alert in anticipation of further protests.

Walker and GOP lawmakers are trying to close a $137 million budget shortfall with a plan that calls for curbs on public employee union bargaining rights and requires public workers, with the exception of police and firefighters, to cover more of their retirement plans and health care premiums.

Public employee unions agreed to financial concessions that they say will help meet the state's fiscal needs, but Walker has said the limits on public bargaining are a critical component of his plan. His bill, which already had passed the state Assembly, would bar public workers other than police and firefighters from bargaining for anything other than wages.

Raises would be capped to the rate of inflation, unless state voters approve. The legislation also would require unions to hold a new certification vote every year, and unions would no longer be allowed to collect dues from workers' paychecks.

Unions mobilized their supporters to oppose the bill, drawing tens of thousands of workers to rallies opposing Walker and supporting the fugitive Democrats. Many of them camped in the halls of the Capitol until police began closing the building after business hours.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO, said Wednesday night's maneuver "shows that Scott Walker and the Republicans have been lying throughout this entire process."

"None of the provisions that attacked workers' rights had anything to do with the budget," Neuenfeldt said. "Losing badly in the court of public opinion and failing to break the Democratic senators' principled stand, Scott Walker and the GOP have eviscerated both the letter and the spirit of the law and our democratic process to ram through their payback to their deep-pocketed friends."

The vote in the Senate was 18-1, with Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz -- who earlier had floated a compromise that neither side bought into -- the lone opponent. Outside, state Rep. Peter Barca argued that Republican leaders violated state open meetings laws by calling the chamber into session without proper notice -- a move he called "a naked abuse of power."

"The gig is now up. The fraud on the people of Wisconsin is now very clear. They are now going to pass a bill to take away people's rights," Barca, a Democrat, said.

And Sen. Mark Miller, the Democratic Senate leader, said Republicans "conspired to take government away from the people."

"In thirty minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin," Miller said in a statement condemning the vote. "Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten."

Ed Lavandera contributed to this report

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