Wis. Democrats fails to get new contracts passed
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Stunned Democrats stripped Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker of his leadership position after he abruptly turned on them and voted against new contracts for state workers.
The deals looked all but dead after Decker's about-face late Wednesday night. Senate Democrats planned to reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, but they can't approve the contracts without the Weston Democrat's support.
Democrats and union leaders said Decker never hinted he wasn't with them.
Wisconsin State Employees Union executive director Marty Beil lashed out at Decker, calling him "a whore" for siding with Republicans who opposed the contracts.
"There's no reason for what Decker did here tonight," Beil said. "No one saw it coming."
Decker declined to respond. The 20-year Senate veteran lost his re-election bid in November and is out of the Legislature in three weeks anyway. "I have no regrets," he said.
Decker's move capped a wild night that featured behind-the-scenes wrangling and a legislator get out of jail to cast the crucial vote.
"This process is broken," Assembly Minority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said.
Contract negotiations are usually a quiet affair, but Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker ignited a bitter debate when he demanded last month that the current administration stop negotiations.
He said he wanted state workers to make deeper concessions to help him deal with a projected $150 million deficit in the current fiscal year and a projected $3.3 billion shortfall in the next two-year state budget. He even went so far as to say he might consider abolishing state employee unions.
But Democrats control the Senate and Assembly until Jan. 3, when Republicans seize control of both houses. They pressed on despite Walker's demands.
Last week they released 17 agreements retroactive to July 1, 2009m, that cover about 39,000 state workers. The deals include no pay increases and 16 furlough days that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle ordered state employees to take in the state budget. The contracts also call for 5 percent increases in health care contributions, which would generate about $1 million in savings, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
It appeared earlier this week that Decker had reservations, though. Assembly Democrats approved an extraordinary session on Tuesday, but Decker didn't convene Senate leaders to follow suit.
Decker relented Wednesday morning after Senate Democrats threatened to approve the session without his consent. Hours later he took his place on the Legislature's employee relations committee and voted to send the contracts on to the full Assembly and Senate, leading everyone to believe he was on board after all.
Assembly Democrats came to the floor first Wednesday evening. They passed 16 contracts by one vote and the last one by three votes.
The key was Rep. Jeff Wood, a Chippewa Falls independent. Wood is serving a 60-day jail sentence in Chippewa County for impaired driving in Marathon County. Jail officials said Wednesday he got a judge to release him long enough to go to Madison and vote. He ended up siding with Democrats.
Wood left the chamber after the vote with a horde of reporters on his heels. He said nothing before ducking into an office.
Minutes later the Senate convened. Decker got up and said he couldn't approve the deals. He said Doyle should have completed the contracts a long time ago and it's the next Legislature's turn to address them.
Democrats voted anyway. Decker and Sen. Jeff Plale, D-Milwaukee, voted against the first contract, creating a 16-16 tie, which meant the vote failed. Democrats immediately recessed to a closed-door meeting, where they stripped Decker of his leadership position and gave it to Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said Decker has never gotten along with Doyle but to strike at the governor by denying state workers new contracts was selfish. He compared Decker to a 3-year-old.
"I'm struggling for the words," Jauch said. "I've never seen any behavior this bizarre."
Democrats returned to the floor and voted on each contract anyway. Decker and Plale voted against every one, killing them. Plale, who lost his re-election campaign as well, said later he didn't want to hamstring the next Legislature.
Walker issued a statement all but declaring victory.
"Due to the delay of these contracts," he said, "I have all options on the table to tackle Wisconsin's budget challenges."