By Ruth Conniff on Mar 10, 2011
After Wednesday night's eruption at the Capitol--as the Wisconsin state senate held a sudden vote on a bill ending collective bargaining for public employees, and citizens filled the building in a massive flash rally--the Assembly took up sister legislation Thursday.
Once again, the Republican leadership cut off debate suddenly and brought the matter up for a vote without following the normal rules. Once again, Democrats and onlookers in the gallery erupted in shock and outrage and shouts of "Shame!" as the Republicans filed out.
Once again, state troopers maintained limited public access to the building.
"We've been living in a banana republic for three weeks," said Representative Marc Pocan of Madison. "I feel like we're living in Fittzwalkerstan There are no rules."
The day began with state troopers barring the doors and crowds of citizens gathered outside clamoring to get in.
The public, the press, and even Assembly Democrats arriving for the session were barred from entry until after 11:00, and remained hung up in long lines and airport-style security until after the session was underway.
As freshman Representative Elizabeth Coggs of Milwaukee put it in an emotional speech on the floor, "I'm a state representative just like anyone sitting across the aisle. I was given a card to get into the building. It doesn't work." Coggs said she ended up climbing in through a first-floor bathroom window behind a Republican colleague.
There are no security escorts or secret tunnel entrances for Democrats, Coggs said, alluding to the Republicans' practice of avoiding crowds by sneaking into the Capitol through hidden passageways, and being walked to their cars by state troopers.
"Wisconsin right now reminds me of Mississippi in the 50s," said Coggs.
Jesse Jackson came to speak outside the Capitol, and entered the ornate assembly chamber as a guest of Democratic legislators to deliver a prayer at the start of the session. He also invoked the civil rights era as he stood in the assembly parlor, taking pictures with the Democrats in their orange solidarity t-shirts.
"In too many other states people are feeling the pain, but internalizing the pain and surrendering," Jackson said. "It's what Dr. King called the tyranny of silence."
"Sometimes democracy occurs in legislative chambers, and sometimes democracy occurs in the streets," he said. The march in Selma whose anniversary is this very week was a march for collective bargaining rights, Jackson noted.
"In many states they are using the pretext of budget deficits to impose right-to-work laws and anti-civil-rights laws," he said. "This week 46 years ago, George Wallace was blocking the doors [to African American students at the University of Alabama]. Now Walker is blocking the doors and trying to deny workers the right to vote."
The basic democratic issues of access to the building, and of the sudden, surprise votes that have turned normal legislative process on its head, are particularly emotional because, as Representative Cory Mason of Racine explained, there is so much at stake.
"We've never seen hundreds of thousands of people come to the Capitol to object to a bill like this before," Mason said. "We are standing up for the rights not only of workers, but of the public to be heard."
The issues at stake--stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights, and in the context of huge cuts in education, health care, and public works, are not to be taken lightly.
"We are debating rights people in this state fought and died for," said Mason.
In a speech that brought onlookers in the gallery to their feet to cheer (and earned them a stern warning from Speaker Fitzgerald that they would be ejected if they cheered again), Mason said "You may win this vote today, but I promise you, we will fight you . . . from the smallest town to the biggest city . . . we will not give up."
Representative Tamara Grigsby of Milwaukee said she had been moved to tears by the "total degradation of this body." "It is mind-blowing," she said. Because she anticipated that the Republicans would suddenly cut off debate, and she would not have another chance to speak, she added her adjourning remarks: "I'd like to adjourn in honor of the rights that were just trampled here today," she said, and "in honor of the 60,000 people who are likely to lose their health care." She adjourned in honor of the transit systems that will lose $47 million in Scott Walker's budget, and "in memory of Wisconsin's democratic tradition, which Republicans in this body have sullied and disrespected more than I ever thought I'd see in my life."
"Secret tunnels? Cutting the legislative hotline? Illegal Votes? Closing the roll?" Grigsby concluded. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, and I swear I don't know how you walk out of this building with your head up."
Nineteen more members of the assembly were on the list, waiting to speak when Speaker Fitzgerald suddenly ended discussion and called for a vote.
Later, on the floor, after it was all over, Mason pointed out that since three Republicans ended up voting with the Democrats, there was a bipartisan vote against the bill--and thus cutting off debate was particularly odious, since Democrats were persuading their colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
Republican repeatedly argued that there had been ample debate time--62 hours total--and they were not in violation of the rules.
But after the drama of the sudden vote and departure, Representative Fred Clark of Baraboo pointed out that they had twice violated the one assembly rule for cutting off debate: Rule 71 which states they need to ask for a motion and receive 15 seconds. Instead, the Speaker ended debate by fiat.
Furthermore, the piece of legislation they had just voted on came out last night, and "not many people could tell you what's different about it." Some provisions clearly differed from the senate version, though. "they forced a vote on a new bill none of them have read, and neither have we," Clark said.
Then there was the violation of open meetings law, which the Democrats will now be pursuing in court, saying that there was not adequate notice for the votes.
As for those 62 hours of debate: "The bulk of it was us introducing amendments they refused to discuss and then voted down," said Clark. He estimated that there were six or seven hours of debate on passage of the bill itself.
At least a dozen members wanted to speak, and were "saving their best shot" for floor speeches before a final vote, Clark said--but their turn to speak never came.
For his part, Clark spoke from the floor about how damaging to the middle class and the whole state Governor Scott Walker's budget plans are. "Wisconsin is not broke. That's a losing message," he said of the Governor's rhetoric. But Walker's bill is killing the middle class, people are fleeing the state, and the whole austerity program will do a great deal of harm to the whole economy.
One of the last speakers, Representative Janet Bewely of Ashland, described it as a "surreal feeling not to be able to speak when you represent 55,000 people." She pleaded with Republican speaker Fitzgerald to get to all 20 of the next members who were in line be heard. Only one more person spoke, and then came the vote.
Representative Peter Barca of Kenosha began the session by moving to remove Speaker Fitzgerald for "impaired judgement," "flagrant violations of the rules like I have never seen before," including his decree that there would be only 120 minutes of debate--"He doesn't have the authority to limit debate to two hours. He thinks he does."-- and being in violation of a court order to allow full public access to the capitol building.
"This is wrong. Terribly wrong. Democracy is ceasing to exist in the state of Wisconsin," Barca said.
The motion to remove the speaker failed, as did motions to kill the no-bid sale of public utilities and a motion challenging the legality of the senate vote on the grounds that the bill dealt with some fiscal issues which required a full quorum--including 14 absent Democrats.
Afterward the PA system was turned off and the Republicans had left the chamber, Barca stood amid his colleagues speaking through a bullhorn: "We are disappointed," he said but the Democrats would pursue legal action. "We are taking the high road," he said, and asked citizens to do the same.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Citizens Jam Capitol After WI Republicans' Sudden Vote to Pass Union- Busting Measure."
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