Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson packed just his toothbrush and one extra shirt when he and 13 fellow Democrats fled the state last week, to avoid near-certain passage of the Republican governor’s plan to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
“That tells you, I didn’t think it would take this long,” Larson said by telephone from somewhere in Illinois, which he declined to disclose.
Nearly a week later the stalemate persists at the Capitol in Madison, and the pro-union protests that began there have spread to other states — including Indiana, where labor legislation and other GOP proposals sparked a similar Democratic walkout.
The 14 wayward Wisconsin lawmakers have given no hint about when they might return, even amid recall threats, a Senate rule change that forces them to appear in person if they want to receive their paychecks and the GOP-controlled Legislature returning to work on other business without them.
Gov. Scott Walker has implied that if the Democrats don’t come back soon, they’ll be responsible for thousands of state workers losing their jobs because Wisconsin won’t be able to refinance its debt.
Even as the Assembly prepares to approve Walker’s plan this week, the Senate can’t take up the measure because it needs at least one of the 14 Democrats for a quorum.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Democrats came up with the idea to flee during a strategy meeting last Thursday morning. An hour later they grabbed some clothes and toiletries and headed for Illinois. Erpenbach’s uncle took him shopping for extra pants and underwear, but if the impasse continues much longer, “I’ll have to grab a roll of quarters and find a Laundromat,” he said.
The Democrats on Wednesday emphasized that their time away is no vacation. The say they spend their days hard at work — handling district business through their staffs, monitoring the Capitol protests, talking to the media and answering constituents’ e-mails.
Indiana House Democrats have also fled to Illinois for similar reasons. They say they’re boycotting until Republicans assure them they won’t debate public education and anti-union measures the Democrats oppose.
One Indiana House member on the run found support in an unlikely place — a handwritten note left on his windshield at the Urbana, Ill., hotel where those Democrats are staying.
“My name is Kyle Patterson and I am a future educator,” the note to Rep. David Niezgodski said. “People like you are my heroes and I thank you for your dedication to educators and to the everyday working person.”
The note included an offer for a free pizza. Niezgodski said he appreciated the offer but would likely decline.
Both walkouts are reminiscent of a 2003 confrontation in Texas, where Democrats who were outnumbered in a battle over congressional redistricting boarded a bus and fled for the Oklahoma border. Their goal was to stay away for one week to kill the bill by running it up against a legislative deadline. But they also knew their efforts were only temporary because Republican Gov. Rick Perry would call them into special session all summer until a bill passed, which he did.
Four Wisconsin Democrats who were reached by The Associated Press said none of their daily expenses were being charged to taxpayers, and none is accepting per diem funds.
Larson said some people have donated food, he said, but he declined to name them.
One lawmaker, Sen. Tim Cullen, said he planned to donate his entire pay for the days he misses to a food pantry in Janesville. That plan didn’t sit well with one GOP lawmaker who has said the Democrats shouldn’t get paid at all for the days they miss.
“These senators aren’t showing up for work. They haven’t earned that pay,” said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. “It’s the taxpayers’ money.”
With the absent lawmakers showing no signs of budging, the Committee on Senate Organization raised the ante Tuesday. The five-person group voted along party lines to prevent absent lawmakers from getting paid unless they pick up their paychecks in person during a Senate session.
Also, a Utah-based group has started a process to recall several of the senators. American Recall Coalition filed the paperwork Tuesday with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, but it was unclear what chances it had.
Sen. Robert Wirch, one of the targets, wasn’t concerned.
“I’m listening to people in my district and they’re overwhelmingly against the governor’s anti-worker initiative,” he said.
Wirch initially told AP he was using vacation time to cover his absence. However, state lawmakers don’t get conventional vacation time. Wirch called back Wednesday to clarify that he was indeed working after all, doing the same work he does when he’s in his office.
Walker says his proposal is critical because Wisconsin faces a projected $3.6 billion budget hole. Besides eliminating most bargaining, his bill would force public workers to pay more for their benefits. However, the measure outraged union workers, prompting eight straight days of massive protests in the Capitol that grew as large as 68,000 people on Saturday.
Wirch hopes the vocal protests in the Capitol will eventually persuade Republicans to compromise.
“I’m hopeful that public opinion will prevail on this administration,” he said. “Clearly I think public opinion is overwhelmingly on my side. That gives me hope at some point the Republicans will forget about ideology and listen to the voices of the people.”
Associated Press writer David Mercer in Urbana, Ill., contributed to this report.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press