Why Did Wisconsin Republicans Have To Act Alone?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 14, 2011

Because Wisconsin Democrats weren’t negotiating in good faith:

As soon as the senate Democrats left town, Republicans began to explore their options for passing the budget repair bill without them. There was talk—public and private—about “splitting” the bill to get around the need for a three-fifths quorum. For most, this meant separating the two main provisions of the legislation—the collective bargaining reforms in one bill and the benefit contribution increases in another.

[Governor Scott] Walker didn’t want to do this. Democrats were accusing him of including the collective bargaining restrictions for no other reason than to weaken unions, saying the collective bargaining provisions had no fiscal impact. On the surface, separating the bills would seem to validate this criticism, although no one knows better than union bosses just how important a tool limiting collective bargaining would be to reducing expenditures on public employees. In fact, school districts and local governments could require changes to their employees’ health benefits only if collective bargaining were curtailed.

So on February 28, senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald drove across southern Wisconsin to meet with two Democrats who wanted to explore a compromise, Bob Jauch and Tim Cullen. Fitzgerald says that the two had opposed the flight to Illinois in the first place and along with at least one other colleague wanted to find a way to return. They explored several options over hotcakes and sausage at a local McDonald’s. Fitzgerald left without a compromise but with what he believed was a commitment that the Democrats would soon be returning to Madison.

“I met ’em on a Monday,” Fitzgerald recalls. “They called me on a Tuesday saying they’d be in the chamber Wednesday morning. I called them on Wednesday morning to say, ‘Listen, I know you’re coming back, let me call the cops to give them a heads up that you’ll be back.’ And then Senator Cullen said, ‘Well, Fitz, what I told you the other day was true at the time I said it, but we’re not coming back.’ ”

Fitzgerald was frustrated and concluded the Democrats were not negotiating in good faith. He called Cullen and told him to deal directly with the governor’s office.

Walker instructed two of his top aides—chief of staff Keith Gilkes and deputy chief of staff Eric Schutt—to pick up negotiations with the Democrats. “There was continued optimism on our side that something would get done,” says a source close to Walker. The governor would not compromise on the two main components of the bill. But he was willing to make some concessions, such as allowing unions to bargain collectively for wages beyond the rate of inflation, as well as for performance bonuses, mandatory overtime, and class size.

The discussions on March 2, again in a McDonald’s, included the two moderate Democrats, the governor’s staff, and, importantly, Mark Miller, the Democratic leader. When the negotiations ended, Republicans once again believed their colleagues would be returning soon. Gilkes woke Walker up with a phone call at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday to tell him that they had agreed on “the framework for a deal” that would be finalized in the coming days. The talks continued by phone for several days and culminated in a meeting between Gilkes, Schutt, Jauch, and Cullen on Sunday, March 6, in South Beloit.

The talks went well, and Walker was not surprised when the Wall Street Journal reported that evening that the Democrats would be coming home. Miller, the Democratic leader, told the paper: “We are now looking at returning to the state capitol and requiring the senators to take a vote and have them declare who they’re with—the workers or the governor.”

Jauch, as he had done in meetings with Republicans, pointed to the advanced pregnancy of one state senator in Illinois as a factor in the decision to return. “I think we have to realize that there’s only so much we can do as a group to make a stand,” he said. “It’s really up to the public to be engaged in carrying the torch on this issue.”

But as had been the case all week, the moment Republicans thought the homecoming was imminent, the story changed. State senator Chris Larson, a hard-left legislator, posted a message on his Facebook page saying the Democrats were staying away and claiming, implausibly, that the Journalhad quoted his colleagues out of context.

If there were any question that the deal was dead, the Democratic leader dispelled it by issuing a letter Monday to Walker through the media. His missive called for a meeting near the Illinois-Wisconsin border—an absurd request given the regular negotiations that had been quietly taking place for a week.

“He was trying to frame the debate as if we hadn’t been negotiating,” says one source close to Walker. “We’d been taking hits in the media for refusing to negotiate, and we never went public to push back on that so as to not jeopardize the progress we thought we were making. We knew then that Miller was being disingenuous.”

These weren’t negotiations. These were a series of stalling tactics on the part of Wisconsin Democrats. The process simply could no be taken seriously.

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