Protestors Take State Capital in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller says, "This is a disaster."

February 18, 2011, 8:00 AM

Feb. 18, 2011 — -- Crowds protesting proposed budget-cutting moves that threaten the bargaining rights of many Wisconsin state employees grew to nearly 40,000 today, helping paralyze Madison, the state capital, for yet another day.

Despite the protests, and an exodus of Democratic state senators that has prevented a vote on a controversial Republican proposal, Republican Gov. Scott Walker remains committed to a plan to curb the state's unions and force them to contribute more for benefits and believes it will pass the legislature.

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.

Madison, Wis., has become a magnet in the national and emotional debate over budget priorities, drawing figures including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the head of the national AFL-CIO.

IN PHOTOS: Wisconsin Protests

Even President Obama has injected himself into the growing fracas.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV in an interview Wednesday at the White House.

Key Democrats still are missing in action, holed up at a hotel across the border in Illinois after fleeing a vote in the Wisconsin Senate on Thursday. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state Senate 19-14, but 20 state senators need to be present to hold a vote.

"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, one of the Democrats 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."

CLICK HERE for more of George Stephanopoulos' interview with Sen. Mark Miller.

On Thursday night, more public workers, including firefighters, poured into the capital. Some families camped out overnight in a last-ditch effort to protest the moves they feared would cripple their union rights.

"I want to do anything in my power to raise awareness that this can't happen," said one protestor.

"We've taken less pay for the benefits, so now simply to cut our benefits is just totally unfair," said a retired teacher, Jim Thompson.

On Thursday, Republicans were poised to pass an austerity budget requiring state workers to pay more for pensions and health care.

But what really has protestors steamed is a dramatic move by the Republican governor to eliminate union bargaining on everything from wages to work rules.

"He's trying to dictate what we'll do, how we'll do it, when it'll be done," said Deborah Caldwell, a teacher.

"It's about stripping away our rights to have a union," said a local union steward identified as Aniel.

Wisconsin State Senate Democrats Flee to Illinois

So the 14 state Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote, and prevent Wisconsin police from rounding them up.

"The state police jurisdiction stops at the state border, so that's why we had to leave the state," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach. "It's not like we wanted to do this."

"We feel that by delaying the vote for awhile, the people of the state will have more opportunity to talk about this issue," said Sen. Jim Holperin, another Democrat.

Gov. Walker, who unveiled the budget bill only 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.

Miller said he is trying to protect people's jobs.

"This governor has proposed in a mere four days to strip away people's rights on the pretext of a budget crisis," Miller said. "It's a crisis entirely of his own making. He's using this as a way to strip away longstanding of Wisconsin history of how we work with employees."

The governor is trying to take away collective bargaining rights, which he says is necessary to avoid furloughs, and has said by doing so he will guarantee that no one will be laid off. He wants public workers to contribute more to their health care and pension plans.

"The workers of Wisconsin have always been willing to work with the governor when they face a crisis, whether it's a national disaster or a fiscal crisis," Miller said. "They did it at the last session -- they took furloughs and a 3 percent pay cut. They would do it again. The really insulting thing is that the governor never, ever asked them.

"He just introduced this law last week and he expected it to be passed yesterday [Thursday]," he added. "It's unacceptable. It's not the way we do things in Wisconsin, it's not the American way.

"We had a much bigger deficit at the end of the Bush recession that hit our state and every state like a thunderclap," Miller said. "It was a $6.6 billion deficit. And we solved that. The employees stepped up to it, they took a furlough, a 3 percent pay cut, which helped."

The historic standoff will continue until at least one Democrat returns to the state Senate.

"I think we're a little kabuki theatre, at this point," said Ken Goldstein, a political science professor University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Things are going to come to and a conclusion in the next couple days."

Once the Democrats come back, they are likely to lose the vote, in spite of all the protestors.

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.

CLICK HERE for more of George Stephanopoulos' interview with Sen. Mark Miller.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events