Feb. 19, 2011 -- Some Wisconsin doctors threw their support behind teachers protesting the Republican governor's efforts to strip unions of their bargaining powers, saying they would write sick notes for teachers to skip work to demonstrate.
The union protesters have been picketing the state capitol in Madison for five days, angered by Gov. Scott Walker's proposed bill, which has the backing of the Republican controlled state Senate.
The Madison School District has said teachers who call in sick to protest won't be paid, but a group of licensed Wisconsin doctors came to the capitol today saying they would write a physician's note for anyone who asked.
Dr. Kathy Oriel told ABC affiliate WKOW-TV in Madison that the doctors realize they could get in trouble for their offer.
"We think its worth the risk," she said. "Teachers have no choice."
The physicians told WKOW-TV that they are acting on their own, not in connection with any hospitals or organizations, but they said the notes are valid.
The demonstrations heated up today, when thousands of supporter's of Walker's bill -- many of them bused in by tea party groups -- raised their voices against opponents outside the state capitol.
Despite the influx of supporters, pro-union activists were in the majority at the dueling rallies in Madison as nearly 70,000 people filled the square outside the capitol building. Tea party members' voices were added to the chorus of dissent on the fifth day of the massive, peaceful protests.
Walker supporters chanted "Pass the bill! Pass the bill!" as pro-union picketers shouted back "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" Tea party protesters carried signs reading "Your Gravy Train Is Over … Welcome to the Recession" and "Sorry, we're late Scott. We work for a living."
As the five-day old demonstrations escalated, tea party groups pledged to begin recall efforts against the 14 Democratic state senators whose absence has left the legislature without a quorom, preventing Walker's bill from coming to a vote.
Despite the tens of thousands of demonstrators and the Democrats' disappearance, Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the budget bill will pass.
Speaking from a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol, Fitzgerald reassured supporters that the GOP-led state Senate will vote to approve it without changes, as soon as the legislature is able to reconvene.
"The bill is not negotiable," Fitzgerald said. "The bill will pass as is."
The counter-protest, which was announced by the Virginia and Wisconsin-based conservative group American Majority, was dubbed the I Stand With Scott Walker Rally, and was organized by American Majority executive director Matt Batzel.
"I think we're in for something special," Batzel told WISC-TV in Madison Friday. "We're expecting to have thousands of conservatives and tea party people representing the majority of Wisconsin who stand behind Gov. Walker on this bill."
"We did have an election and Scott Walker won," Deborah Arndt, 53, of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., told The Associated Press. "I think our governor will stand strong. I have faith in him."
Meanwhile, tea party members are forming two exploratory committees to recall two of the Wisconsin Democrats that fled the state on Thursday to protest the vote on the certain-to-pass bill, which will drastically cut state worker benefits and eliminate union bargaining rights.
Following today's protests, the tea party group Northwood Patriots said it will meet Sunday to discuss the recall of state Senator Jim Holperin, while a separate group in Kenosha, called the Robert Wirch Exploratory Committee said it is looking into recalling state Senator Robert Wirch.
According to Madison's The Capital Times, a recall effort would require the exploratory committees to collect 15,000 to 20,000 petition signatures.
"[Wirch] needs to get back on the job," Dan Hunt, a self-proclaimed tea party member told The Capitol Times. "This has angered a lot of us. What you see in the capitol is just a bunch of out-of-state people being paid by the unions."
Sarah Palin also weighed in on the matter in a Facebook post on Friday, telling union members that they should break away from leaders.
"You don't have to kowtow to the union bosses who are not looking out for you, but instead are using you," wrote Palin.
"Wisconsin union bosses want union members out in the streets demanding that tax payers foot the bill for unsustainable benefits packages," she wrote.
Walker told reporters Friday that he would not "allow protesters to drown out the voice of the taxpayers," adding that he had received 19,000 supportive e-mails this week and that a "quiet majority" of the state's residents are behind his plan.
Fourteen state Democrats, holed up in an undisclosed hotel just over the border in Illinois, have been speaking to the press about their efforts to halting the voting process so the public can weigh in.
"This might be the only option we really have to try to say to the governor, 'Let's slow this down, you're ramming this through,'" said state Sen. Dave Hansen.
"The idea is to sit down and negotiate," said state Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, another Democrat who left the state. "We've heard over 1,000 people testify about the impact this is going to have on their lives. It's heartbreaking. People break down in tears. This is a disaster and we're being asked to swallow it in just four days."
Walker, who unveiled the budget bill last Saturday, has been calling upon the Democrats to return and end their "theatrics."
"I think it's time for them to come home and do their job," he said.
Walker, faced with a $3.6 billion deficit, denied he is trying to bust the unions.
"The bottom line is we're broke," the governor said. "We can't negotiate for something we don't have the ability to give on."
But Miller said Walker is offering tax breaks elsewhere -- such as at an earlier legislative session where "he created $140 million in tax breaks for corporations in Wisconsin."
Wisconsin has a $137 million shortfall this year and $3.6 billion over the next two years.
In spite of all the protestors, Democrats are likely to lose the vote.
Other governors facing similar budget crises are watching Wisconsin carefully. More than 40 states are facing a combined projected shortfall of $125 billion for the fiscal year of 2012.
The hardest hit are California, facing a $25.5 billion gap, Texas at $13 billion, Illinois at $15 billion, New York at $9 billion and New Jersey at $10.5 billion.