Sometime in the middle of the day Thursday, the special legislative session officially became a circus.
Demonstrators protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, which strips public employee unions of many of their collective bargaining rights, had been sleeping overnight in the state Capitol. High school students were walking out of schools in Kenosha and staging their own demonstrations. In other cities, so many teachers took personal days or called in sick so they could go to the demonstrations in Madison that schools had to close.
But what really turned the session into a circus was the the Democratic members of the state Senate refusing to show up for a floor session. It was the only way they could think of to prevent the Republican majority from passing Walker’s bill. The Senate needs 20 members present to pass a fiscal bill, and there are only 19 Republican senators.
The Democratic senators were reported to be out of the state so they could be out of the reach of the Wisconsin State Patrol, which the Senate majority leader said could be sent to bring them to the Senate chamber.
It is reminiscent of a situation in Texas several years ago, when legislators fled to Oklahoma to prevent the majority party from passing a redistricting plan.
Circus-like or not, the Democratic senators’ action may have forced the one thing that’s needed most right now: A deep breath. Everyone, including the Republican majority in the Legislature, ought to slow down.
The legislation that the governor proposed has enormous implications, not just for the short-term financial problems it purports to fix. The Senate and Assembly were scheduled to vote on the bill on Thursday, just a week after the governor announced the plan.
It is not reasonable to expect workers who are directly affected by the governor’s bill to accept the changes as legitimate when they have had so little time to absorb them and when they have not had a chance to influence the legislation.
In our view, the governor is correct that public sector workers ought to be paying more for their health insurance and pensions, but the legislation he has proposed goes far beyond that. He has proposed taking away their rights to bargain for anything other than wages, and he wants to put a cap on the wage negotiations.
We think the governor, the Legislature and the residents of Wisconsin would be well served if this process would slow down. Now we have demonstrators shouting and disrupting the legitimate work of elected officials, but they might not be shouting if they were ever given a genuine chance to be heard. On Wednesday Republican leaders announced they had the votes to pass the bill when a public hearing on it had barely begun.
If the governor believes he needs an emergency budget repair bill, he should propose one that makes emergency repairs, not something that rewrites the state’s collective bargaining laws. Had he done that in the first place, this circus might not have happened.