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Gov. Walker Rejects Compromise as Wisconsin Union Protests Continue

February 21, 2011 at 6:19 PM EST
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Protests continued in Wisconsin's capitol as Gov. Scott Walker refused to negotiate with striking public employees about collective bargaining rights. Judy Woodruff talks to Jason Stein, capitol reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to the big battles over spending playing out in the states and here in Washington.

We begin with the latest in Wisconsin.

Thousands of people began their second week of protests in full force this afternoon. The public workers gathered at the Wisconsin state capitol say they are prepared to make concessions on benefits to help trim deficits between now and 2013. But they remain vehemently opposed to Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to curb or end collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions.

Walker was asked about that point today on “Good Morning America.”

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC Anchor: Governor, they already said they were willing to give up on the pensions and on the health care. They already said that. They have already made those concessions.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R-Wis.): But that’s a red herring. But you can say anything in the midst of the debate. In December, after I was elected, but before I sworn in, they tried to ram through a bill to push forward and lock in state employee health care — state employee health and contracts.

The bottom line is, they can say these things, but there are 424 school districts. There are 72 counties. There are a 1,000-plus municipalities in the state. All of those can’t guarantee the kind of savings that a handful of state union leaders are talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Crowds of more than 60,000 Wisconsin residents opposed to Walker descended on Madison over the weekend, too. On Saturday, a much smaller number of people who support the governor’s efforts came to the capitol as well. Many were organized by the Tea Party.

MAN: You can’t keep spending and spending. Are we waiting for the whole economy to collapse? I’m a public worker myself. And we really need to be willing to make those sacrifices.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Democratic state senators who delayed action on the budget by fleeing the state vowed not to come back, even if it meant missing votes on other bills tomorrow. They remained in hiding at an undisclosed Illinois location, gathering in a stairwell of this hotel.

FRED RISSER (D), Wisconsin State Senator: We want to slow up the process. And the reason we have left the state temporarily is to give the people in the state a chance to realize what our governor is doing.

SPENCER COGGS (D), Wisconsin State Senator: For as long as it takes. As long as I get some clean underwear, for as long as it takes.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Madison, teachers were among today’s protesters.

MIKE LIPP, Madison Teachers Inc.: If the governor was serious about this repair bill, he would have come to us and said, we have economic issues and these are some suggestions. And we’d sit down and we would talk about it. But to include gutting law that was put into place in 1959, signed by the great Gaylord Nelson, granting public employees the right to collectively bargain is ludicrous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nationwide, other states suffering from budget woes that are considering similar measures, like Ohio and Indiana, are facing protests of their own this week.

The proposed changes in workers’ health and pension benefits would save Wisconsin’s government about $330 million between now and 2013. The state is facing a $3.7 billion deficit over the same period.

Well, for more on the state of play tonight, we’re joined by Jason Stein. He’s the statehouse reporter for The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal.

Jason Stein, thank you for talking with us.

Bring us up to date. What is the situation there right now at the state capitol?

JASON STEIN, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Well, we continue to have a crowd of thousands protesting inside and outside the capitol.

We have the assembly preparing to come in and possibly vote on this budget repair bill tomorrow, on Tuesday. And, as well, we have the Senate preparing to come in on Tuesday and vote not on this budget repair bill, which they can’t do without a Democrat present but vote on other pieces of legislation with the Democrats absent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, it was reported — and I want — we want to clarify this — the Democrats offered to — or the unions, we should say, offered to go along with cuts in pay, cuts in benefit, as long as they could keep their collective bargaining rights. The governor said no to that. Is that accurate?

JASON STEIN: That’s right.

Over a couple of days, they — they repeated that offer. Democratic senators have also said they’re prepared to come back if that sort of a deal is struck. The governor has repeatedly rejected that offer, saying it’s not enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and help us understand,what — what is it — how does the governor believe having — taking away those collective bargaining rights are going to help the — the state’s fiscal picture?

JASON STEIN: What he says is — he says over, you know, the mid- and long-term, that having state and local governments having more flexibility with their employees — and, by flexibility, he means not having to bargain with their employees at the negotiating table, with those unions, over things like work rules, which who — which insurer would be their health plan carrier, that sort of thing, that the state would be able to save money and local governments.

One thing that is worth remembering about the governor is until just a couple months ago, he was the executive of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin’s largest county. And there, he had a series of running budget battles with unions, Milwaukee County unions, in which he sought concessions from them that he was unable to get at the bargaining table.

So, he’s them that he was unable to get at the bargaining table. So he’s saying I want to give local leaders what I didn’t have when I was a county executive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we also know that a couple of Republicans state senators have tried to cut a deal they offered to — I guess they came up with a proposal that would allow the collective bargaining to end for two years, but then it would come back in place in 2013. The governor has also said no to that.

Are there talks of any sort now going on between Republicans and Democrats behind the scenes?

JASON STEIN: Well, we know that they have reached out to one another publicly and privately. We — we know there has been outreach.

What we don’t know is the level, the extent, if at all, that sides are really talking back and forth. I mean, you know, what the governor has said and what the unions and Democrats have said is that their positions on these collective bargaining rights, these union bargaining rights that have been part of the Wisconsin landscape now, political landscape, for decades, both sides say they won’t give on their positions on that.

But, of course, you know, often, in these — these types of standoffs, that’s what both sides say until a deal is struck. So, we — you know, we’re staying tuned to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a sense of who has more leverage right now, Jason?

JASON STEIN: You know, our — our story in this morning’s paper looked at the leverage that both sides have.

You know, the Republicans have this ability in the Senate. They can’t vote on a financial bill or a budget bill, because they need 20 members present to do that. They have only got 19, so they need a Democrat there. But, for other pieces of legislation, garden-variety legislation, they could vote on those.

And there are certainly a lot of bills that, you know, Democrats might oppose or might also support and want to be there to vote for those bills. So they have that ability to bring those sorts of pieces of legislation out.

On the other side, part of this budget bill that doesn’t get a lot of national attention is a refinancing of state debt that would free up $165 million in this fiscal year for the state. Now, what the Walker administration told us is they need the budget repair bill to pass by Friday or Saturday, so they can do that debt refinancing.

If it goes — so, if Democrats were to stay in Illinois, block passage of this bill into next week, the Walker administration would be unable to do that debt refinancing, which is something that they have said they want to do.

But the Walker administration has said: That doesn’t matter. If they stay away, we’re sticking to our guns. We’ll just have to make cuts elsewhere in state programs to make up for that money, if we don’t get it through refinancing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, all the rest of us, eyes glued on Wisconsin.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jason Stein, thank you very much.