Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate have voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats.
All 14 Senate Democrats left the state nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's so-called "budget repair bill" -- a proposal introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spend money.
But Republicans on Wednesday split from the legislation the proposal to curtail union rights, which spends no money, and a special conference committee of state lawmakers approved the bill a short time later.
The lone Democrat present on the conference committee, Rep. Tony Barca, shouted that the surprise meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law but Republicans voted over his objections.
The Senate then convened within minutes and hastily passed the bill 18-1 without discussion or debate.
Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center voted no on the bill.
"The Assembly is going to have to vote on this tomorrow, and we'll have to see what happens there. I don't think this issue is going to go away. The people who have come to the Capitol here are very passionate, and I think it's not likely the 100,000 people who were here a few days ago are suddenly going to forget this issue," Schultz said.
Republicans left the building under heavy police presence as protesters began to flood the Capitol.
Spectators in the gallery screamed "You are cowards" and "Shame."
About 200 protesters chanted "occupy" and "general strike" as they vowed to remain inside the Wisconsin Capitol after the vote by the state Senate Wednesday night set off the latest protests. Protesters have gathered the past three weeks, often in the thousands, to protest the measure proposed by Walker.
Some protesters tried to gain access to the Senate gallery during the vote, but were denied access by Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs. Protest organizer Erika Wolfe told the crowd that legal options were being evaluated.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the Senate passed the bill because "the people elected us to do a job, and just because the Senate Democrats won't do theirs doesn't mean we won't do ours."
Fitzgerald said three legislative agencies have said every item in the bill follows the letter of the law.
But Democrats believe the Senate's actions were in violation of the state's open meetings law, and they have been crying foul on it all night.
The statute requires 24 hour notice before any meeting or two hour notice if "good cause" is given. There was just less than two hours notice given of the conference committee, so some legal challenges are expected.
The governor praised Republicans in the state Senate on their vote Wednesday night. Walker said the Democrats were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused.
"In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government," Walker said in a statement.
The Assembly will be in special session at 11 a.m. on Thursday to take up the conference committee bill, which includes taking away most collective bargaining rights from most state employees. That's the last step before the bill can go to Walker for his signature.
Senate Democrats React To Vote
When word came that Republicans were rushing a vote Wednesday night, Senate Democrats reacted quickly.
Some considered coming back to the Capitol, but others were steadfast in their desire to stay put in Illinois.
The 14 Democratic Senators said the move by Republicans is a betrayal of the working class in Wisconsin.
While it's unclear when the lawmakers will make their return to Wisconsin, Sen. Chris Larson said he actually started driving back to Madison, then turned around after realizing the vote had been made.
"I started driving as soon as I heard this was going to be happening, that they were going to split this and pass this the way that it did. And it was unfortunate that there was no opportunity for input," Larson said.
"We took a very, very unusual action going to Illinois but it was legal. They took a very, very unusual action tonight, which may not have been legal. But the problem is the escalation of reaction has to stop," said Sen. Tim Cullen.
"We didn't force them into anything. They would not debate the bill; they would not amend the bill. When we were up in Wisconsin, they were going to put time limits on this debate and they were going to try and make this law within a week. And you're talking about six decades worth of strong, bipartisan support for collective bargaining in the state of Wisconsin," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
The leader of Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate said his caucus will return to the state, but he won't say when.
Senate Democratic leader Mark Miller of Monona said Democrats will "join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government," but he refused to say when.
"In thirty minutes, 18 state Senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten. Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people," Miller said in a statement.
Before the sudden votes, Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch said if Republicans "chose to ram this bill through in this fashion, it will be to their political peril. They're changing the rules. They will inflame a very frustrated public."
Democratic Senators said they are planning to meet Thursday in Illinois to regroup and discuss a strategy moving forward, which includes challenging the legality of the Republican senators' actions.
Unions React To Senate's Action
Unions are outraged about the Senate Republicans' vote to strip collective bargaining rights, potentially changing more than 50 years of laws in a matter of minutes.
Wisconsin was the first state to approve collective bargaining for public sector workers in 1959, but now those rights are up in the air.
"Clearly there were no negotiations going on, and it really shows what the governor and the majority leader were saying the last couple of days just cannot be taken at face value. Clearly this does not suddenly pop in their head at 3:59 this afternoon," said Rick Badger, AFSCME Council 40 executive director.
"What the Republican senators are doing here, what the governor is doing here, is mandating what local school districts can do, local government can do, county government can do. They're forcing it down their throat," said John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc.
MTI, the Madison teachers union, is asking all teachers to report to work Thursday. Matthews said that "the Senate's improper and illegal action will be challenged in court."
Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell expressed outrage "on behalf of educators everywhere at the despicable and possibly illegal actions by the Senate."
But Bell encouraged educators to return to work to Thursday as leaders explored the next steps in their battle against Walker's proposals.
"I ask Wisconsin's educators to be at work tomorrow (Thursday). We will not back down. We will continue this fight," Bell said.
Wisconsin State Employees Union Executive Director Marty Beil criticized Walker and Republicans "for destroying 50 years of labor peace, bipartisan cooperation and Wisconsin democracy." He also encouraged Wisconsin residents to channel their energies into peaceful demonstration and adherence to the democratic process, namely the recall of eight Republican senators who stood with Walker.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, also released a statement on the Senate's vote Wednesday night.
"Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night. Walker and the Republicans acted in violation of state open meetings laws, and tonight's events have demonstrated they will do or say anything to pass their extreme agenda that attacks Wisconsin's working families," Neuenfeldt said in the statement. "Tonight's trampling of the democratic process in Wisconsin shows that Scott Walker and the Republicans have been lying throughout this entire process and we have been telling the truth -- that NONE of the provisions that attacked workers' rights had anything to do with the budget."
Stay tuned to WISC-TV and Channel 3000 for continuing coverage.