Republicans Vote to Impose Fines on Wisconsin's AWOL Democrats

Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted Wednesday to fine the chamber's absent Democrats $100 for each day they miss of the legislative session, and the governor said Republicans remain committed to his plan to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.

Gov. Scott Walker met with Republican Party senators in a closed-door meeting a day after releasing details about concessions he's offered to Democrats, saying he had the backing of his fellow Republicans.

"They're firm," Walker said after dashing out of the meeting and into an elevator at the Capitol.

The Senate's 14 Democrats fled the state to block a vote on the legislation nearly three weeks ago, and Democratic leaders said Wednesday they're willing to negotiate on a deal that would end their impasse. The fines likely won't help since only one planned legislative day remains before lawmakers take a month-long break.

The anti-union bill, though affecting only one state, has become a key test for Republicans who made huge gains in November elections by promising to slash government spending at the national and state level in an effort to boost the economy. Defeating the the bill is crucial to public-sector unions, an important part of the Democratic base. Obama and other Democrats will need the enthusiastic support of unions in the 2012 elections -- especially in swing states like Wisconsin.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans were discussing concessions that Walker's office has offered to Democrats, including allowing public workers to bargain over their salaries without a wage limit. Fitzgerald did not say whether Republican senators would back those changes, even though several facing recall efforts have publicly called for compromise.

Both Fitzgerald and Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie said they were not aware of any new negotiations Wednesday with Democrats. Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, and Bob Jauch said they were unaware of any new talks.

Walker released e-mails Tuesday that show conversations about the proposed concessions between his office and Jauch. Walker's deputy chief of staff, Eric Schutt, wrote in one e-mail sent Sunday night that the governor would be willing to allow bargaining over salaries with no limit. His original plan banned negotiated salary increases beyond inflation.

Walker also agreed to allow collective bargaining for mandatory overtime, performance bonuses, hazardous duty pay and classroom size for teachers.

However, other issues that public workers are currently allowed to collectively bargain would not be allowed, including health benefits, pensions, hours, overtime, vacation, work schedules and sick leave or family leave.

Walker's original bill called for public workers to pay more for health care and their pension, which amounts to roughly an 8 percent pay cut for the average state worker. Those concessions -- which Walker said would save the state $330 million by mid-2013 -- would remain. The unions and Democrats have agreed to those cuts to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

The elimination of automatic union dues withdrawals from public workers' pay would remain, as Walker originally proposed. Also, University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff would not be allowed to collectively bargain, a right given to them under a 2009 law.

Union leaders weren't happy with the concessions, and Democrats have not signed off on them.

"The very few bargaining rights he uses to create the illusion he's willing to compromise are still drastically limited, and the ability of unions to effectively bargain would still be eliminated entirely," said Rick Badger, director of AFSCME Council 40, which represents more than 33,000 local government employees.

While talks have been going on sporadically behind the scenes, Republicans in the Senate have publicly tried to ratchet the pressure on Democrats to return. The Senate had previously voted to find the Democrats in contempt and authorized police to essentially arrest them if they show up in Wisconsin.

Their Republican counterparts agreed to impose the fines in a largely symbolic move, since only one planned legislative day remains before lawmakers take a month-long break.

"I don't know what else I could possibly do to compel them to come back," Fitzgerald said after the vote to fine the lawmakers.