This is unbelievable in the history of Wisconsin. But it happened.
At 1:00 this (Friday) morning, the Wisconsin Assembly abruptly passed a controversial budget repair bill in a 17-second vote. Not everyone had time to vote. It caught many Democrats off guard as it came at the end of sixty hours of debate and ten days of citizen protests inside and outside the Capitol building. The next step is for it to go to a vote in the state Senate.
I am very troubled about this, as are thousands of Wisconsin residents. This will not benefit the people of Wisconsin. It will benefit the rich and powerful. It is no wonder that thousands of people have protested at the Capitol for ten days, including seventy thousand in one day alone, and many have been sleeping at the Capitol in their protests. We aren't even all talking about the same thing. Trust in government and among legislators is gone. Bipartanship doesn't seem to exist.
Several scenarios have been playing here. Governor Scott Walker has repeatedly said publicly that this bill is designed to cut the budget in order to address a significant budget shortfall. Democrats in the legislature have pointed out that the real issue is the governor's desire to get rid of collective bargaining benefits for public workers and break the unions. The public employee unions have agreed to the proposed financial changes but will not concede about collective bargaining. The third scenario appears to be Governor Walker's political goals for himself, independent of any budget situation. This became evident in the broadcast of a prank phone conversation between Walker and an out of state blogger who said he was David Koch, a billionaire supporter of Walker.
In the phone conversation with "Koch", Walker showed that his primary allegiance was to Koch and the agenda of several conservative governors, which is to bust the public employee unions. Walker said he had considered planting troublemakers in the crowds of peaceful protesters but didn't do it because it might damage him politically. Walker and "Koch" agreed that they had a "vested interest" in the pasage of the budget repair bill. You bet they do. As I understand it, the bill gives Walker the right to sell Wisconsin power companies to anyone at any price without having to consult the elected members of the legislature. It seems that Koch is a major player in the power industry. Payback? Hmmm. In addition, Walker revealed his strategy of trying to trick the state senators into being out of the room during a recess and then taking a vote without them present, in the belief that once a quorum was present, business could be conducted even if a quorum was not there. This way the vote would pass. Is this legal? I am not an attorney. Is it ethical? Hardly. Is it like the vote that happened in the Assembly at 1:00 this morning? Yes.
That's not all I'm bothered about. This bill, if passed in the Senate, will give control of Wisconsin's Medicaid and Senior Care programs to Walker and one of his appointees. Here is Wisconsin's own death panel. It is likely that thousands of vulnerable people will lose access to medical services if this happens, in order to save money. That's not all. Public education funding will be greatly reduced and many teachers laid off. Layoff notices have already started to be issued in the state. Wisconsin transit systems will lose their federal aid because in order to get it, they must go through collective bargaining. A Madison bus driver told me that this would mean that several of the state's small transit systems would have to close. Again, this is a blow to vulnerable people who depend on buses.
I don't know when our state government has been this polarized. This dysfunctional group of leaders needs to go to counseling. As events have unfolded, the triple scenario of issues has played out. For ten days, thousands of people have demonstrated at the Capitol, the vast majority in opposition to the bill. Walker supporters have said that these were out of state people who were brought in. Not so. When I was there, most were Wisconsin people in support of teachers, UW employees, nurses, and police and fire department people whom Walker exempted from the collective bargaining prohibition (who supported him in his election campaign), and others with union signs.
In the beginning, Walker did not have a budget crisis. According to reports, when he took office, he put through the Republican controlled legislature provisions that gave a large amount of money to business interests. In this way he created a budget shortfall and then used it to move along his agenda. This happened after he gave back federal funds to run a railroad line through Wisconsin.
After he proclaimed the budget crisis and presented his budget repair bill on a Friday (Fridays are good for not being noticed by people due to the weekend), apparently in hopes of passing it before the public would know what had happened, the State Senate tried to convene and discovered that fourteen state senators were not there, so the Senate could not do any fiscal business. They sent police to find the senators, which seemed heavy handed, and came up empty. We soon learned that the senators left the state in order to slow down the bill and allow discussion. This was a peaceful form of protesting about the way the governor was doing business. They said he would not discuss the bill with them. He was quoted in the media as saying that he would talk to them but would not change his mind. We don't know when they will return. They say they will return when Walker is willing to have real discussion.
As time went on, the Senators stayed in Illinois and were seen on national television. National television came to Madison when John Nichols of the Capital Times and The Nation magazine brought Ed Schultz of MSNBC's The Ed Show here for two days of local coverage. I was there. Other media began to notice.
The Senate was unable to pass the bill due to the absent senators, but the Assembly was in session. A long public hearing occurred, rallies went on inside and outside the Capitol. They debated for about sixty hours, mostly without sleeping. Republicans saw the large number of Democratic amendments as a way to stall and defeated most of them. Then debate was stopped and the vote taken abruptly. It passed. A significant number of representatives did not have time to vote in the seventeen second time period.
Even if the Republicans succeed in passing this legislation in the Senate, and the regular budget bill that will come up in a few days, I think that for the Republicans it will be like winning the battle and losing the war. It will be a sad state of affairs if the moneyed interests pull the strings of government to advance their interests. The middle class is disappearing, and this is one part of the drama. The war could be won when these people try to be re-elected.
Robert Reich, economist and member of Bill Clinton's administration, pointed out on television and elsewhere that the way out of state and national budget woes is not to reduce government services, and not to give tax breaks to the rich and put more tax burdens and deprivations on the middle and lower classes. It is to expect the rich to pay their share and thus put more money into the economy via increased spending by the ordinary people who would be taxed less. If they don't have jobs, they can't contribute to the economy.
Thanks to Rep. Tammy Baldwin and former Sen. Russ Feingold for supporting the people. Thanks to Facebook for being there as a means of communication for many people. I hope Governor Walker has a few sleepless nights over this travesty. Thanks to Ed Schultz of MSNBC and Air America for his ongoing support. Thanks to John Nichols for bringing MSNBC here to tell the world. Not many thanks to Pres. Obama, who has said almost nothing in support of the Wisconsin people. He promised in his 2008 campaign to be with people when their rights could be taken away. He turned out to be a false messiah. I think the native Americans were right. They said that government couldn't be trusted.