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Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early Friday morning before sleep-deprived Democrats realized what was happening.
The vote ended three straight days of punishing debate in the Assembly. But the political standoff over the bill - and the monumental protests at the state Capitol against it - appear far from over.
The Assembly's vote sent the bill on to the Senate, but minority Democrats in that house have fled to Illinois to prevent a vote. No one knows when they will return from hiding. Republicans who control the chamber sent state troopers out looking for them at their homes on Thursday, but they turned up nothing.
"I applaud the Democrats in the Assembly for earnestly debating this bill and urge their counterparts in the state Senate to return to work and do the same," Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said in a statement issued moments after the vote.
The plan from Republican Gov. Scott Walker contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.
The flashpoint is language that would require public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and strip them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.
Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.
Tens of thousands of people have jammed the Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.
With the Senate immobilized, Assembly Republicans decided to act and convened the chamber Tuesday morning.
Democrats launched a filibuster, throwing out dozens of amendments and delivering rambling speeches. Each time Republicans tried to speed up the proceedings, Democrats rose from their seats and wailed that the GOP was stifling them.
Debate had gone on for 60 hours and 15 Democrats were still waiting to speak when the vote started around 1 a.m. Friday. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, opened the roll and closed it within seconds.
Democrats looked around, bewildered. Only 13 of the 38 Democratic members managed to vote in time.
Republicans immediately marched out of the chamber in single file. The Democrats rushed at them, pumping their fists and shouting "Shame!" and "Cowards!"
The Republicans walked past them without responding.
Democrats left the chamber stunned. The protesters greeted them with a thundering chant of "Thank you!" Some Democrats teared up. Others hugged.
"What a terrible, terrible day for Wisconsin," said Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee. "I am incensed. I am shocked."
GOP leaders in the Assembly refused to speak with reporters, but earlier Friday morning Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, warned Democrats that they had been given 59 hours to be heard and Republicans were ready to vote.
The governor has said that if the bill does not pass by Friday, the state will miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt and will be forced to start issuing layoff notices next week. However, the deadline may not as strict as he says.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed back as late as Tuesday to achieve the savings Walker wants. Based on a similar refinancing in 2004, about two weeks are needed after the bill becomes law to complete the deal. That means if the bill is adopted by the middle of next week, the state can still meet a March 16 deadline, the Fiscal Bureau said.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he and his colleagues wouldn't return until Walker compromised.
Frustrated by the delay, Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Jeff Fitzgerald's brother, ordered state troopers to find the missing Democrats, but they came up empty. Wisconsin law doesn't allow police to arrest the lawmakers, but Fitzgerald said he hoped the show of authority would have pressured them to return.
Erpenbach, who was in the Chicago area, said all 14 senators remained outside of Wisconsin.
"It's not so much the Democrats holding things up," Erpenbach said. "It's really a matter of Gov. Walker holding things up.
Democratic state Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago has resigned from the Legislature.
In a letter to Senate President John Cullerton, Hendon called yesterday a "wonderful day,'' going on to say he has enjoyed working in the Legislature.
While Hendon did not give a reason for stepping down, the assistant majority leader wrote he hoped supporters will accept his decision and allow him to move on with his life.
The 57-year-old Hendon was elected to the 5th District seat in 1993.
Hendon's name has come up in a federal grand jury investigation of how state money was handed out to various groups.
A number of them report receiving the grants with Hendon's assistance. But there has been no indication Hendon has been targeted by the investigation.
Twenty-first century technology makes it easy to record events throughout the world, but that ease of recording may violate the law. In Illinois, making audio recordings of conversations in public places without the permission of everyone in the recording is usually a crime. Under the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, recording police officers can lead to a class 1 felony, which can carry a four to 15 year prison sentence. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports on efforts to soften the eavesdropping law for both the public and police officers.
(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)
Indiana House minority leader Pat Bauer said he wants to meet with Wisconsin state Senate Democrats who have also fled to Illinois to block action on Republican-backed legislation.
Bauer said the roughly 30 Indiana Democrats he led to an Urbana hotel to avoid votes on anti-union and school-related legislation could commiserate with their counterparts from Wisconsin.
The South Bend Democrat said such a meeting would be like a pair of crime victims meeting to talk about their attacker. One of the other Democrats staying in Urbana is Charlie Brown of Gary. He said he is intrigued by the idea, saying there are a lot of people that weren't aware of the odds faced by the party in each state.
"It's amazing the number of people that were not into the real minute points," Brown said. "They were trying to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees. They wanted to set up some kind of merit system for teachers and so forth. People say 'really?' Yes, that's what we're fighting for."
With the Indiana House now adjourned until Monday, Brown said it is likely the caucus will return home for the weekend to pick up clothes, and return to Urbana before the chamber convenes on Monday. But Brown said the caucus is staying in Urbana at least through Thursday night.
He said it is still possible Governor Mitch Daniels could use the state police to bring Democrats back to the capitol if they simply stayed home. Brown says he and colleagues who have been staying at a hotel in the area since Tuesday have also gotten their first look at some of the labor protests at the capitol in Indianapolis.
"That was a booster for us," said Brown. "We're isolated up here, and only get bits and pieces of what's going on. But that was really a plus for us, to see that our constituents are really concerned in these pieces of legisation."
Wisconsin Senator Tim Cullen says he and his fellow Democrats are focused Thursday on the situation in their state and didn't know of any plans to meet up.
Indiana's Democratic caucus will meet Friday morning at 10 a.m.
Illinois officials who promise to keep an eye on every tax dollar are trying to do it with 263 different systems for tracking money, including many that are old and incompatible, according to a report Thursday.
Auditor General William Holland said auditors found state agencies 24 different systems just for handling payroll.
Half of state government's financial reporting systems are more than 10 years old. Many are more than 20 years old, which Holland called "archaic.''
More than half the systems cannot share information. Dollars and cents have to be entered manually when transferring data, which increases the risk of mistakes.
State legislators were stunned by the audit's findings.
"I think it's disastrous. What private company with revenues of $33 billion wouldn't have a unified accounting system?'' said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora, an accountant. "It's obvious that state government fiscal matters are in chaos.''
Rep. Jack Franks, head of the House State Government Administration Committee, called it "critically important'' for Illinois to track money carefully. He said the accounting systems are probably contributing to massive budget problems.
"It sounds almost Soviet-style, where nothing works,'' said Franks, D-Marengo.
State spending is under more scrutiny than ever as Illinois tries to climb out of the worst budget hole in its history. Officials passed a tax increase last month, but still face a deficit that could approach $10 billion.
A list in the audit shows agencies using everything from huge computer systems to personal finance programs such as Quicken to paper ledgers. One agency had a process labeled "egg inspection receipts.''
"We've got multiple systems that do not deliver in an efficient way, and they need to be replaced. There's no question about it,'' Holland said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The report did not estimate how much the financial systems cost the state because of errors or confusion. But auditors did note that 17 percent of agencies provided figures on what it costs to enter duplicate data in different systems. The cost just for that portion of state government was $11.3 million.
It takes Illinois more than a year to compile a final spending report after each budget ends, auditors said.
Bond-rating agencies, who help determine how much the state pays to borrow money, object to financial reports coming out late, the report said. One agency, Moody's, has twice cited late reports as part of the reason it lowered Illinois' rating.
Late financial reporting also can endanger the state's federal funding or trigger increased federal scrutiny of Illinois programs, the audit said.
Auditors recommended that state agencies under the governor's control work with the Illinois comptroller to improve financial reporting.
Bradley Hahn, spokesman for new Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, said they "wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations, and we look forward to working with the governor's office to implement them.
Many Indiana House Democrats who came to Illinois to deny a quorum to the House Republican majority chose Urbana as their resting spot.
On Thursday morning, it was easy to spot the hotel where they were staying. The Comfort Suites on North Lincoln Avenue had several TV news trucks in its parking lots, and people carrying signs standing along the sidewalk. Two groups of demonstrators hailed passing motorists outside the hotel, letting everybody know they welcomed the lawmakers --- or thought they should go home.
University of Illinois student Devin Mapes was among about 20 demonstrators lined up to support the Indiana House Democrats. Mapes, who is president of the U of I Illini Democrats, said Indiana Democrats are right to use a boycott to block the majority Republicans from passing bills he says would hurt unions and teachers.
"These individuals here in the hotel are trying to push democracy forward as opposed to unilaterally forcing things down the throats of the individuals in the state of Indiana," Mapes said.
Champaign County Democratic Chairman Al Klein was among the demonstrators supporting the lawmakers. He charged Republicans with trying to promote a hidden agenda.
"No one ran on this as a platform," Klein said. "They ran on austerity, shared sacrifice, solving budget problems. And then suddenly, they arrive in their state capitols, they take off their jackets, and --- what is it? --- 'We're going to bust the unions, we're going to bust the state employees'. Where did that come from?"
But the view was different a few yards away, for Frank Barham, chair of the Champaign Tea Party, which organized about a dozen demonstrators who thought the Indiana Democrats should go back to Indianapolis. In Barham's view, Republicans won the majority in the Indiana House, and Democrats need to accept that.
"These people didn't win," Barham said, whose advice for the lawmakers staying at the Comfort Suites was, "Go back to do what you were elected to do, what you're getting paid to do. You're not getting paid to hide out in Urbana.
Another demonstrator, Urbana resident Robert Dunne agreed. He said Indiana House Democrats need to go back home and make the tough choices needed to keep their state fiscally sound.
"They were elected to be in the state of Indiana --- not hiding out in Urbana, Illinois," Dunne said.
Barham said they held their demonstration at the request of the Tea Party group in Fort Wayne Indiana --- Fort Wayne lawmaker Win Foster was among the Indiana House Democrats staying at the Comfort Suites. Barham said he hadn't seen any of the Indiana Democrats during the demonstration --- although some on his picket line voiced suspicions about a stretch limo that pulled out of the hotel parking lot.
(Photo by Jim Meadows/WILL)
An Indiana deputy attorney general "is no longer employed" by the state after Mother Jones magazine reported he tweeted that police should to use live ammunition against Wisconsin labor protesters, the attorney general's office said Wednesday.
The magazine reported Wednesday that Jeffrey Cox responded "Use live ammunition" to a Saturday night posting on its Twitter account that said riot police could sweep protesters out of the Wisconsin capitol, where thousands have been protesting a bill that would strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.
Cox also referred to the protesters as "thugs physically threatening legally-elected state legislators & governor" and said "You're damn right I advocate deadly force," according to the magazine. He later told an Indianapolis television station the comments were intended to be satirical.
The Indiana attorney general's office said it conducted "a thorough and expeditious review" after the report.
"We respect individuals' First Amendment right to express their personal views on private online forums, but as public servants we are held by the public to a higher standard, and we should strive for civility," the office said in a statement.
Spokesman Bryan Corbin said the office confirmed Cox wrote the tweets but declined to offer further details about its review or Cox no longer having his job, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.
Cox told Indianapolis television station WRTV on Wednesday that his comments were satirical but acknowledged they were "not a good idea."
"I think in this day and age that tweet was not a good idea and in terms of that language, I'm not going to use it anymore," Cox said. But he also said public employees shouldn't have to surrender their free-speech rights.
"I think we're getting down a slippery slope here in terms of silencing people who disagree," he told the television station.
The Associated Press called several Indianapolis phone listings for a Jeffrey Cox, but could not immediately reach him Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors are moving to dismiss several charges against Rod Blagojevich.
Prosecutors Wednesday told U.S. District Judge James Zagel they seek to dismiss racketeering and wire fraud counts against the former Illinois governor to streamline the case. Zagel didn't immediately rule on the motion. Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky says the move by prosecutors demonstrate they believe Blagojevich is innocent of those changes.
The 54-year-old Blagojevich faces an April 20 retrial on charges he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. He's also accused of trying to shake down donors for campaign cash. At his first trial, jurors deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI. Blagojevich's lawyers have recently filed motions seeking to have several corruption charges thrown out.
Indiana Democrats say they won't return to the Statehouse on Wednesday but are ready to negotiate when Republicans who control the chamber are ready to stop pushing their "radical agenda'' against working families.
Democratic House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer told reporters by phone from Illinois that he's ready to talk with Republicans and that he'll consider bringing his caucus back from Urbana, Ill., on a day-to-day basis. But GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma says he won't concede to Democrat demands.
The political showdown erupted after Republicans advanced a controversial "right-to-work'' bill that prohibits union membership from being a condition of employment. Democrats fled to Illinois and their absence killed that bill, but Bauer says Democrats are upset about the general attitude of Republicans and that the boycott is about more than just right-to-work.
(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)
A Western Indiana Democrat says the caucus meet-up of House members in Urbana should be looked upon as a time out to reach some common ground.
Dale Grubb of Covington said there are other bills besides a contentious right-to-work legislation that spurred him and over 30 of his colleagues to leave the capitol Tuesday.
"The only opportunity a minority has for input is the quorum issue," he said. "And I'm staying at home, I'm trying to work with people and see how quickly we can find common ground on some of those issues - get down to the issues that are the real sticklers. You have to be talking in order to come to some conclusion."
Grub says there are a number of bills concerning public education that also prompted the move, including one that will allow tax dollars to fund private school tuition for some families.
"The one charge that we have as a General Assembly to pass a budget... and adequately fund public education," Grubb said. "We've only got so many dollars. I don't see how we can take money away from public schools and not hurt our kids."
And a House Democrat from Ft. Wayne says Republicans have a radical agenda that will mean lower salaries across Indiana. Win Moses is also staying at the hotel in Urbana. He says progress has made, since Governor Mitch Daniels has agreed the right-to-work legislation shouldn't be taken up at this time. But Moses says the measure is scattered in several bills, and Democrats need to know for sure it's off the table. He says his party expected to forward more than 100 amendments to the capitol by Wednesday night, but Moses is not willing to predict how long Democrats will stay in Urbana.
""We have the agenda - the house bill list, and we're working on that," said Moses. "So we're prepared when we do go back. I don't know how long we'll be here, it depends on how negotiations go. If anybody predicts a day, the other side will probably use that to their advantage and try to push it a day longer."
Moses says Friday is the deadline for bills to pass out of the chamber they originated. But he says that won't have much of an impact, since half the legislative session is left.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says Republicans will not be "bullied or blackmailed'' out of pursuing their agenda despite a boycott from House Democrats over contentious labor and education proposals. He told reporters Wednesday that Democrats will not keep him from pursuing his agenda even if it means calling special legislative sessions "from now to New Year's.''
Meanwhile, Indiana's Senate president says the House should have never taken up a contentious anti-labor bill that spurred the boycott by Democrats there, and he said the Senate won't push the issue this year. Senate President Pro Tem David Long said it was a "mistake'' for his fellow Republicans in the House to take up the issue. But he said it is water under the bridge now and he wants House Democrats to return to work.
Long said the Republican-ruled Senate won't push the"right-to-work'' bill that would prohibit union membership from being a condition of employment. Long said the Senate will instead propose a study committee to look into the matter over the summer. Most House Democrats are in Urbana, and their absence is preventing a quorum needed for House business.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
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