Wis. Capitol a Sea of Bodies as Governor Discusses Budget

By Sean Cavanagh — March 01, 2011 3 min read
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Wisconsin’s state capitol, a grand public monument of murals, mosaics and glass, remains occupied territory, inside and out.

Occupied, of course, by public workers, including teachers, who on Tuesday were once again camped out inside the Capitol, sharing space with dozens of law enforcement officers, who guarded the corridors and interacted amicably with demonstrators, as well as media and Statehouse staff.

Outside, protesters filled the lawn and courtyards on one side of the Capitol in anticipation of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget speech.

As expected, Walker proposed deep cuts to state and local governments, including school districts. Those reductions, he argues, will be offset by cuts in public workers’ pension and health care cuts, and restrictions on collective bargaining.

His plan would cut $1.5 billion in aid to public schools and government, force government employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits, and eliminate most collective bargaining—concessions he says are necessary to deal with a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Schools would see a nearly 9 percent reduction in state aid, and the governor proposed requiring school districts to reduce their property tax authority by an average of $550 per pupil.

But legislative action on that plan remained uncertain Tuesday, as the Senate’s 14 Democrats remained out of the city in protest. The Senate Republicans alone are one senator short of a quorum. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he spoken with some of the missing Democrats, but he said no agreement was reached.

Walker didn’t appear to give ground in his speech, saying his budget marks “a return to frugality.”

And neither did demonstrators, who included Caitlin Yunis, 30, a middle school teacher from Madison. She told me that Walker’s proposal to limit bargaining to wages would lead to districts raising class sizes by too much, and making other changes that would hurt instruction.

“Collective bargaining is about the entire package ... about the decisions that are made in our classroom,” Yunis said.

She was joined by teacher Barbara Alvarado, 63, also from Madison, who said she spent the night in the statehouse. She noted that teachers have already agreed to accept the changes to pensions and health care, but not to collective bargaining.

“The one thing Gov. Walker has done is bring us together,” she said. Of the scene in the rotunda, she said, “this is very exciting, very hopeful.”

Alvarado spoke from a Capitol rotunda that had been thoroughly posterized.

Kill the Whole Bill," one poster read. "The Movement Loves You," another proclaimed. "Blame the Bank$ters, Not the Workers," said another.

On Tuesday, a Wisconsin judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring the building to be opened to the protesters, though when I was there, law enforcement seemed to be limiting the number of people allowed in at one time.

The crowd inside and out appeared to be overwhelmingly opposed to Walker’s proposal. But amid the sea of public sector workers outside the building stood David Heim, 50, holding a sign that said, “Thank You Walker for Being Strong.”

Heim said he had nothing against unions or public workers, but he believed the governor was right to ask more financially of teachers and others, given the state’s budget status. Wisconsin faces a projected $3.6 billion, two-year shortfall.

“We finally have someone who has the courage to do this,” Heim said of the governor.

The outnumbered Heim said he had heard his fair share of four-letter words directed his way since taking up his spot about 20 yards outside the Capitol. The Cambridge, Wis., resident took some PG-rated razzing while I was interviewing him, but gamely soldiered on.

“I tell them, ‘I’m glad you’re here. I happen to disagree with you,’ ” Heim said of the anti-Walker majority. He added that the other side would have its chance to overturn whatever policy the governor and GOP-controlled legislature enact.

“In a couple more years,” he said, “we’ll have an election.”

Photo: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker presents his budget plan in an address to a joint session of the legislature at the Capitol in Madison on March 1. (Andy Manis/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.