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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Friday signed into law the proposal that eliminates most union rights for public employees, quietly concluding a debate that provoked three weeks of loud, relentless protests at the Capitol.
Walker, the 43-year-old son of a preacher who has swiftly become one of the most polarizing politicians in the country, signed the legislation in private Friday morning. He planned a ceremonial signing later in the day.
The governor insisted the proposal was necessary to balance the state budget, and he never backed down, even after 14 Senate Democrats fled the state in an attempt to block the bill. The drama touched off an intense national debate over labor rights for public employees.
Parts of the fight were sure to continue in the courts and in the battle over the broader state budget.
On Friday, the Democratic executive of Dane County asked a court to find passage of the law to be unconstitutional, arguing in part that it was adopted illegally without the required quorum. A judge denied an emergency request to block the measure and scheduled a longer hearing for Wednesday.
The law does not take effect until the secretary of state issues an official notice that it has been enacted, and the notice is published in the Madison newspaper. The earliest that could happen is Saturday.
Walker’s success was a key victory for Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending.
Labor leaders and Democrats vowed to use the setback to fire up their supporters across the country and mount a counterattack against the GOP at the ballot box in 2012.
Democrats said the battle with Walker helped them raise nearly $1 million in a matter of days, and efforts to recall Republican state senators who sided with Walker were gaining momentum.
Walker, who has sharply divided the state just 10 weeks into his term, remained defiant Friday, issuing a message of his own seeking donations from supporters.
“The voters of Wisconsin didn’t elect me to pass the buck or run away from a tough fight,” said the governor, who asked for donations starting at $100 and said he hoped to reach $150,000 within a month.
“They elected me to get the job done. They elected me to get Wisconsin working again,” Walker said. “I won’t let their intimidation tactics stop us from turning our Wisconsin around.”
The measure passed both chambers of the Republican-led state Legislature earlier this week. The Senate cleared the way for passage with a surprise move Wednesday that allowed lawmakers to approve the bill without any Democratic senators present. The state’s Assembly followed suit Thursday.
In addition to ending collective bargaining, the law forces state workers to pay more for their pensions and health care benefits — changes that will save an estimated $30 million to help pay down a budget shortfall project to be $137 million by July 1. The higher payments for state workers will take effect over the coming weeks.
But much more turmoil lies ahead.
Lawmakers have not even started to debate Walker’s two-year budget, which calls for cutting schools and local governments by more than $1 billion.
Interest in the budget is so high, the Republican leader of the state Senate said public hearings may be held at arenas in Milwaukee and Madison that each hold 18,000 people.
Walker repeatedly argued that ending collective bargaining would give local governments much-needed flexibility to confront the cuts in state aid that will be necessary to fix Wisconsin’s deficit, which is expected to grow to $3.6 billion deficit over two years.
Walker also said his plan would avoid the need for any furloughs or layoffs. He issued a notice last week warning that up to 1,500 workers could be laid off if the bill failed. But just before signing the measure Friday, Walker rescinded the notice.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans passed the law to fulfill campaign promises.
“It shouldn’t have taken two years for the recession to finally affect the government, but the public sector is finally sharing in the pain, albeit with modest concessions,” Fitzgerald said.
It was not the first time state workers had been asked to sacrifice. Walker’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, ordered 16 unpaid days off for state workers over the past two years, amounting to a 3 percent pay cut.
The changes contained in Walker’s law amount to an average 8 percent pay cut.
The political drama surrounding the proposal was dominated by tens of thousands of protesters who repeatedly filled the Capitol for weeks, carrying signs, chanting slogan, shouting at lawmakers and often sleeping on the marble floors.
Dozens of protesters returned to the Capitol on Friday, shouting “Recall Walker!” Another large rally was planned for Saturday.
Despite the protests, Walker has said, he believes there is a “quiet majority” who back his agenda.
Democrats said Walker didn’t do enough to compromise with them. Walker said it was the Democrats who were not serious about negotiating a deal.
In the end, Walker got most of what he wanted.
The governor, who won election in November with 52 percent of the vote, has a history of being combative with political opponents.
As Milwaukee County executive for eight years before being elected governor, Walker never proposed a higher property tax levy than what was approved.
To pay for that, he repeatedly sought to cut the wages and benefits of county workers but was blocked by the unions and the Democratic-controlled county board.
Now he has a Republican-controlled Legislature backing him all the way.
“I’ve always been bold,” Walker said in an interview last month. “I’ve been bold at the county, which is why there’s always been a lot of passion there for folks who supported me and those who opposed me. And I’m bold here, too.”
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press