When the history books tell the story of Gov. Scott Walker’s fight with public-employee unions in Wisconsin, several stories will leap to the front: fourteen Democratic state senators running across the border to hold up a vote, Walker being prank-called amid the oppressive glare of a national story, and the Wisconsin capitol being overrun by government workers for nearly three weeks.
Yet in the last two days, the flurry of legislative activity used to pass the bill may have obscured one important point: It was the senate Democrats who shut down negotiations on the bill, leading to its swift passage in both houses of the legislature.
Shortly after Democratic senators fled the state, Republican senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald met with a team of legislative attorneys that laid out his options for passing the bill. Among these options was exactly what ended up happening — passing the bill with only a few appropriations stripped out, thereby circumventing the three-fifths quorum required for bills that spend money.
For three weeks, Fitzgerald held this option in his back pocket. He watched as senate Democrats taunted him from across the border, insulting him and his colleagues. Yet Fitzgerald showed patience, trying to negotiate with more moderate Democrats a resolution that would bring a peaceful end to the standoff.
Eventually, the actions of Democratic senate leader Mark Miller became incongruous and erratic. On Monday of this week, Miller sent Fitzgerald and Walker a letter indicating there should be negotiations between the two sides. When Walker released e-mails from his staff showing that he had been negotiating with several of Miller’s members on several important items, Miller shot back with another letter. This time, Miller essentially offered Fitzgerald and Walker two options: either drop the issue of collective bargaining altogether, or “keep lines of communication closed.”
With that letter, Fitzgerald recognized that senate Democrats were not interested in negotiating in good faith, so he exercised the option he’d had all along — he passed a bill out of the senate that retained almost all of the provisions of the original bill. The rules are very clear: A bill taken up in special session only has to be “noticed” by posting it on a legislative bulletin board. Fitzgerald gave two hours’ notice as a courtesy to Democrats. (The bill’s opponents have already begun filing lawsuits saying the bill was passed “illegally,” although the statutes and rules couldn’t be more clear.)
By the time the bill passed the assembly on Thursday, it had almost been forgotten that Democrats had essentially passed on many of the concessions offered by Fitzgerald and Walker. The final bill could have allowed for collective bargaining on workplace safety provisions; it could have included a provision allowing larger salary increases for public employees. Yet Mark Miller’s petulant intransigence made those concessions impossible, and therefore cost the public unions dearly.
While it seemed like the state was crumbling before their eyes, Scott Walker, Scott Fitzgerald and assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald stood firm, despite knowing they could end the impasse at any time. Their willingness to negotiate in good faith will likely be one of the untold stories of the conflict. And while the protesters will likely continue to march on the capitol, they may never realize that they could have had it a lot better, had senate Democrats not abruptly pulled the plug on negotiations.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.