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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Fair
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Scott Walker inks end to Wisconsin workers' rights at 'singing' ceremony

Walker: 'This is about protecting middle-class jobs and middle-class taxpayers.'
Credit:Bill Lueders
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Heading over to the Capitol this afternoon to take in a press conference by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca and the ceremonial signing of the now officially non-fiscal "budget repair bill," I overheard a conversation between two demonstrators making their way around the building.

"I've spent twice as much of my life as an adult than he has,"" the one man was saying to his companion, in reference to Walker. It was a comment that would stay with me throughout the afternoon.

I entered the building at 2 p.m., and was wanded with a hand-hand metal detector for the first time, my press credentials no longer sparing me this indignity. Having no weapons other than my two pens, I was allowed in.

Just as there were only a handful of protesters outside, the building was mostly empty when I entered. For the first time in a month of daily protests, I looked around and wondered, "Where is everybody?" Most of the people who were present were congregated as near as they could get to Walker's office.

As I made my way past the security in front of Walker's office, one of the officers pointed downward, urging me to watch my step. There was a man lying on the floor, surrounded by cops. He had apparently collapsed. It seemed as though he was unconscious, until paramedics arrived and hoisted him on to a stretcher; then I saw his head move. The crowd outside the office cheered as the paramedics carried the man out.

The governor's conference room was packed with media, jockeying for position for the momentous event scheduled to take place there at 3 p.m. The event was heralded this morning in a press release from the governor's office entitled, "Budget Repair Bill Singing Ceremony Announced." In fact, Walker officially signed the bill around 10 a.m.; the afternoon singing ceremony was strictly for show.

I headed over to the Assembly parlor, for Barca's press conference. Because most of the Capitol press corps was waiting for Walker to sing, it was sparsely attended, although Barca planned to do another one after Walker's event.

"It's official," Barca said. "The charade is over." Walker had succeeded in doing what he intended all along: to take away the rights of workers, through a process that, in Barca's opinion, reeked of impropriety. "Wisconsin's proud progressive tradition has taken a huge blow."

Barca called Walker's action "a full-frontal assault on the working class," and predicted that after first eradicating the rights of public sector employees, Walker would set his sights on the private sector ones.

But Barca also asserted that "rights die hard for any Americans, and especially for Wisconsin Badgers." He predicted that huge protests would continue, at one point speculating that tomorrow's turn-out could top 100,000, and that legal challenges could undo what Walker and the Republicans have done. "I believe the Badger State will come back."

In response to a reporter's question, Barca defended his unsuccessful effort yesterday to have Jeff Fitzgerald removed as Speaker of the Assembly. He cataloged the abuses of process -- including the surprise 1 a.m. vote to pass the bill in the Assembly and the hasty vote Thursday night in the state Senate that is being decried as a violation of the state's Open Meetings Law.

"What we have seen is a blatant disregard for the rules, in order to push through a bill the people don't want," he said. "If a Speaker of my party caused this much turmoil" and violated as many rules and laws, "I would no longer support that person."

The Republicans in the Legislature, apparently, have no such qualms; they rejected this motion on a 57-38 party line vote. Barca still hasn't gotten over it: 'What's gone on here is nothing short of trampling Wisconsin democracy."

I went back downstairs for the governor's 3 p.m. singing. Media continued to pour into the room; I think the turnout was close to 100. It was the largest such gathering I've seen, even though the event was destined to be the most pro forma of them all.

Walker's cabinet entered the room at about 3:05, followed by Walker, who sat at a table and signed the already signed bill, or a ceremonial duplicate. From outside of the room, the chants of the throng outside, which had by this time swelled significantly, could be heard loud and clear: "Shame!"

The document ceremonially signed, Scott Walker began, as only he can, to sing.

He thanked the GOP lawmakers and one independent (Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc) for getting the bill passed and invited Democrats "to join with the Republicans in the Legislature to get Wisconsin working again." He said of the bill: 'This is about protecting middle-class jobs and middle-class taxpayers," at least three times. (I think it was the chorus.)

Walker again referred to the concessions he's gotten from state workers, and the identical changes the end of collective bargaining will allow local governments and school districts to extract from their workers -- as "a very modest request." He said it had saved 1,500 middle-class jobs, the number he said would have been laid off had it not passed. In other words, it saved these jobs from him.

From outside the room could be heard what appeared to be foghorns blaring and sirens of uncertain origin.

For the umpteenth time, Walker talked about his brother David, who runs his own small business and would "love to have" the deal public employees still have under this bill. By which Walker must mean a sudden average salary loss (PDF) of $4,000 a year and the permanent eradication of the right to bargain over benefits, overtime, sick pay and workplace rules. His brother David would just love this.

Walker said again that, in his opinion, there are "good, decent people" who work for state and local governments. "We want to thank them for that and respect them for that."

From outside the room: "Recall Walker!"

Walker noted that he's been asked "if this is going to set a national precedent." His response: "I don't know." He said Gov. Tommy Thompson did create a national precedent with "welfare reform," but argued that he was focused on Wisconsin: "We're doing this in our own state, to get Wisconsin working again."

During the brief question and answer session -- the entire event lasted just 20 minutes -- Walker mostly repeated the talking points he had already made, in his typically long-winded fashion. He said the benefit concessions would start in April, as would the need for individual public employee unions to conduct secret certification votes to see whether they should still exist.

One reporter acknowledged the elephant outside the room: "We can hear thousands of people in the hall shouting 'Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!'" the reporter noted. Wasn't Walker concerned about that?

Of course not, said Walker, returning to his mantra that these people have "a right to be heard" but should not be allowed to drown out the millions of taxpayers he just knows are on his side, no matter what the opinion polls say.

Walker similarly swatted down questions about legal challenges to how the bill was passed, and recall efforts that are sure to be launched. These would all work out in good time, to his advantage. He was sure of it -- no doubt as sure as his staff was in putting out a press release for this "singing ceremony."

I missed the announced last-question cutoff, but I still tried to ask the question that was on my mind. I thought it was an excellent question: "Governor, you're not concerned about legal challenges; you're not concerned about demonstrators; you're not concerned about recalls; you're not concerned about animosity in the Legislature. Is there anything you are concerned about?"

But as by the time I finished asking, Scott Walker left the room, apparently without a care in the world.

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