On Wednesday night, Wisconsin Senate Republicans did what most people thought impossible — they passed Governor Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill virtually intact, without having to split out controversial provisions that limited the ability for government employees to collectively bargain.
A letter Democrat Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller sent the governor today, indicating Miller’s unwillingness to further negotiate any details of the bill, was what prompted the GOP’s decision to take the bill to the floor.
“It was like, ‘I’m in the minority, and I’m going to dictate to you what your options are,’” said one GOP source about Miller’s letter. It was just three days ago that Miller had sent Fitzgerald a letter urging more negotiations, despite the fact that Governor Walker had been negotiating with at least two Democrat senators for nearly a week. “With his recent letter, it became clear that all he wanted to do was stall,” said the GOP source.
Another action that provoked the GOP senators to act was Democrat Senator Lena Taylor’s very public decision to have a spring election absentee ballot sent to her in Illinois. The spring election is scheduled for April 5th, which indicated Taylor’s desire to stay out of the state for another month. “That sure didn’t help,” said one GOP source.
The Wisconsin Constitution requires a quorum of three-fifths of the Senate in order to pass a bill that “imposes, continues or renews a tax, or creates a debt or charge, or makes, continues or renews an appropriation of public or trust money, or releases, discharges or commutes a claim or demand of the state.” For weeks, it had been known that Republican senators could separate the fiscal provisions of the bill from the proposed collective-bargaining changes, which were seen as non-fiscal. However, there was speculation that, if a bill was brought to the Senate floor that contained only the collective bargaining changes, it might not have the votes to pass.
On Wednesday night, the bill passed with a number of provisions that could be considered “fiscal,” such as the requirement that many government employees contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions and pay 12.6 percent towards their health-insurance premiums.
GOP senators consulted with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau on this point, and were sent a memo indicating that while there were some “fiscal” provisions of the bill, these provisions didn’t technically make an “appropriation,” and therefore were not subject to the three-fifth quorum requirement. This allowed senators to keep the bill virtually intact, which the GOP felt helped bolster their argument that all the collective bargaining changes were, in fact, fiscal in nature.
What is perhaps most stunning is that Fitzgerald’s maneuver tonight seems to have caught the Democrat Minority Leader completely off guard. Senators Miller and Fitzgerald have access to the same legislative attorneys and were likely given the same options for resolution. “I think [Miller] actually thought he was going to win,” said one GOP source.
Following the vote on the bill, GOP senators were hustled out of the Capitol via an underground tunnel that takes them to a government building across the street. For the past few days, senators have made this walk and been loaded onto a bus that takes them to their cars parked in a remote area. Yet after the vote, protesters had apparently caught wind of this process and surrounded the bus full of senators. One witness told me he had seen protesters surrounding the bus and trying to rock it back and forth.
The bill now goes to the Assembly, where it is likely Democrats will try to delay its passage by filibustering indefinitely. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald will likely limit debate, which will lead to accusations that the GOP is “silencing” the minority.