It’s been one year since Governor Scott Walker introduced his proposal to eliminate collective bargaining for most public employees and the fallout from the debate continues to have a major impact at the Capitol.
It was February 11, 2011 when Walker rolled out his budget repair bill, which included the collective bargaining changes that he argued were needed to eliminate a state budget deficit and get Wisconsin back on strong financial footing.
At the time, Walker argued “we are broke in the state. We’ve been broke for years, people have ignored that for years, and it’s about sometime someone stood up and told the truth.”
Walker predicted union officials would try to rally dissent among state workers to oppose the change, but he believed most public employees would agree it was needed. It was just a few days later Wisconsin would witness an outpouring of opposition to the plan from union members and their supporters in the private sector. In the weeks that followed, the world would watch as tens of thousands of people descended on the state Capitol to occupy the building and hold round-the-clock protests against the bill.
The debate in the Legislature reflected a bitter partisan divide in the Capitol. The bill moved quickly toward passage less than a week after its introduction, until 14 Democratic state senators left Wisconsin to prevent a vote. The move resulted in three more weeks of protests, until Republicans used a procedural maneuver to pass the collective bargaining changes.
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) says the debate left a deep divide in state government, resulting in a political climate more polarized than ever before. Barca says Republicans have carried on after the debate to silence minority Democrats and public opposition to their agenda.
However, Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says most of that outcry is part of an overall plan by Democrats to regain power. Fitzgerald says his members do not regret their decision to support the governor and he is “more proud of what we did in this last year” than he is of any other session before.
Governor Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Fitzgerald, and three other GOP senators are currently targeted by recalls because of the collective bargaining issue. Over the summer, six Republican senators and three Democrats faced recalls, with two Republicans removed in those elections.
Even a year later, the debate and political divide remains evident at the Capitol each day. Protesters are a fixture at committee hearings and during legislative floor sessions, along with a daily demonstration in the rotunda. Several groups have planned events in the coming week to mark the one year anniversary of the historic protests.
AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:03)