Updated at 9:45 a.m. on February 18.
Thousands of civil service employees are expected to return to the Wisconsin state Capitol for a fourth day to protest proposed legislation that would cut health insurance and pension benefits and strip public employee unions of some bargaining powers, while the government remains at a standstill.
Democratic members of the state Senate fled the state to avoid voting on the budget repair bill that would increase employee pension contributions to 5.8 percent, double health insurance contributions, and remove the rights of civil employee unions to negotiate over anything but salaries.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed the bill to help close the $137 million shortfall the state is facing this fiscal year.
While Walker recognizes his proposals are a “bold political move,” he said they are modest requests.
“The bottom line is we have to balance the budget. The union protesters in Wisconsin have to be heard, but the millions of taxpayers in the state have a right to be heard as well,” Walker said on CBS’ "The Early Show." “We can’t raise taxes to balance this budget or we will cripple the economy that already has a seven-and-a-half unemployment rate.”
“To show that we are open for business we have to make it easier to put people to work, and asking employees to pay half the national average for health care is truly a modest request,” he said.
According to Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman, teachers aren’t the only ones whose paycheck will be taking a hit. In an interview with MSNBC, Grothman said his take-home pay will drop between 9 and 10 percent. Cuts to civil employee pay are the only way to close the budget gap, as raising taxes would hurt the state, he said.
Modest or not, irate civil service employees are holding the Madison statehouse hostage and protesting outside Walker's home. And they have caused a mini-shutdown of some agencies, including many public school districts, and the state legislature.
Democrats crossed the border to Illinois on Thursday, leaving Republicans without enough lawmakers to vote. In a press conference, Walker called the disappearance a "stunt" and said he wouldn’t back down. Democrats say they won’t return until Walker is willing to compromise on union rights.
"This is not about the money. The governor is going to get his money and the public employees are going to pay their fair share. This about what the governor is trying to do to essentially bust up unions," state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D), one of the legislators who fled to Illinois, told MSNBC. "This is a tiny budget repair bill that is usually very technical and doesn’t get a lot of debate at all. But when the governor introduces this ticking time bomb last Friday and wants it in law yesterday, I think it's irresponsible on his part to try and rush something like this through."
Protest fever may be catching, as civil service employees in Ohio are protesting a similar measure.