Wisconsin governor to missing senators: Come back or I'll lay off 1,500

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says the state Legislature can't attend to crucial fiscal business while 14 Senate Democrats remain out of state to avoid a vote on a bill that would clip union rights. If the stalemate drags out, Walker said he'll have to make layoffs.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Scott Walker addresses the media during a news conference at Colgan Air Services at the La Crosse Municipal Airport in La Crosse, Wis., on Monday. The governor called on the missing Democratic senators to return to the state.
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is ratcheting up the pressure on 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state two weeks ago to avoid voting on a bill that critics call a deliberate attempt to kill many of the state's public unions.

Without the the 14 senators, the Wisconsin Senate can do nothing because it lacks a quorum. But Governor Walker is now saying that the renegade contingent must be in session in Madison Tuesday to vote to restructure the state’s debt, a move he says will save $165 million.

Walker is suggesting that if Democrats are not present to authorize the readjustment, he may have to start cutting state jobs, though he didn't say when. The first cut would be 1,500 workers, and the reduction might ultimately spread to 12,000 state, local, and school employees.

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Some Democrats are saying the deadline is arbitrary and that the restructuring will actually cost Wisconsin taxpayers in interest because it simply spreads the debt over the next 10 years.

“He’s not getting a lower interest rate, [he’s] just deferring a payment and it’s going to cost us … He’s just kicking the can down the road,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D) told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Monday.

Why Tuesday?

Walker has several reasons for wanting the Senate Democrats back in Madison Tuesday. Aside from the delayed budget-repair bill, which would end collective bargaining except for wages for non-law-enforcement public unions, Walker also wants the Legislature to take up next year's budget, which he was planning to introduce Tuesday. The budget is expected to have about $1 billion in cuts to local schools and municipalities.

But Walker says the Tuesday deadline comes from a Feb. 22 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan organization that provides governmental fiscal analysis to Madison lawmakers. The memo said that the state has until March 16 to transfer funds within the budget. The process of creating bonds, obtaining a rating from independent agencies, and taking bids to issue the bonds will take two weeks.

“According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, if Senate Democrats refuse to return to Wisconsin and cast their vote the next day, the option to refinance a portion of the state's debt will be off the table,” Walker said in a statement released Monday.

In a phone interview Monday, Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang says that the restructuring represents “pushing some principal payments out over a couple of years into the future to realize a savings right now.” Mr. Lang confirmed that the interest costs to the state over a 10-year period total approximately $42 million. “There is some cost to it,” he says.

On Sunday, in conversation on a Milwaukee television show, Walker said he did not have a specific timetable determining when potential cuts would happen, but he suggested it might be soon.

“It’s not just a number, it’s not just a budget, it’s ultimately a real person with a real family, so I’m going to push that back as far as I can,” he said. “We’ve got to have real numbers to balance the budget to avoid layoffs. My hope is those 14 state senators … realize that in the end, it’s much better off to avoid those cuts, it’s much better off to avoid the most dire consequences that will come if we don’t pass this bill.”

Senators adamant

Yet the state’s Senate Democrats continue to stay in the Chicago area. They say they will not return to Madison unless the governor shows he is willing to compromise on the budget-repair bill.

On Friday the governor visited cities represented by the senators to directly appeal to their constituents.

On the Milwaukee television, he suggested he understood the motivations of the senators’ actions. “Senators said when they walked out two weeks ago they wanted to have more time … to have a true debate. I think they’ve succeeded in doing that. The whole state knows what’s going on,” he said. “It’s now time to come home.”

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