MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin's Democratic state senators returned to work Tuesday with little fanfare, a stark contrast to the scene in February when their dramatic decision to flee the state in protest over an anti-union bill helped fuel massive protests that made the state the center of a national fight over union rights.
The 14 Democrats left for Illinois with no warning on Feb. 17, leaving the Senate with one too few members to vote on the bill. Finally on March 9, Republicans removed some financial provisions from the bill so they could pass it with a lower quorum and no Democrats present. The Democrats returned to Wisconsin in March to participate in a massive rally the day after Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill into law.
The law is now tied up in court and hasn't gone into effect. It would require most state employees to pay more for health care and pension benefits while taking away all of their collective bargaining rights except over salary increases.
In a way, the Senate picked up Tuesday right where it left off. The first bill considered was a measure that includes many of the spending items Republicans removed from the anti-union bill before it passed last month. Those items are needed to plug a $137 million budget shortfall projected by July 1.
The bill passed on a 22-11 vote with three Democrats — Tim Cullen, Jim Holperin and Bob Jauch — support it. It was expected to pass the Republican-controlled Assembly later Tuesday.
Many of the Democrats mingled with their Republican colleagues before the start of the Senate session, a far cry from the acrimony that lay heavy in the Statehouse during their absence. Republicans voted then to find the Democrats in contempt and authorized everything from their arrest to daily fines to force them to return.
No one was arrested, none of the threatened penalties were imposed, and the contempt orders were lifted Tuesday. Efforts have been started to recall eight Democratic and eight Republican state senators.
Republican Senate President Mike Ellis started Tuesday's session with a subtle joke.
"As you can see we have a full house — a full agenda, a full agenda," Ellis said.
The Senate galleries were only partially full with the normal mixture of lobbyists, tourists and other observers. The day Democrats left in February thousands of screaming protesters packed the hallways outside the chamber and the gallery erupted with chants and cheers when action on the union bill stalled.
Tuesday's debate of the budget focused mostly on the proposal and not the drama of the past two months, but eventually Democrats brought up the union fight.
Had the bill before them Tuesday been what was originally proposed to fix the budget, and not also the collective bargaining limits, it would have easily passed and Wisconsin would not have been torn apart, said Jauch, one of the Democrats who voted for it.
"You can't pretend that we are somehow in this holy and pure environment and ignore what this bill looked like when it was introduced in February," he said.
Ellis repeatedly banged the gavel as Jauch and other Democrats talked about the collective bargaining issue since it was not included in the bill at hand.
Walker's bill plugs the projected shortfall largely through a debt refinancing that will save the state $165 million by June 30 — money it can then use to help pay for the state prison system and Medicaid programs. But the delay in debt payments will cost the state about $40 million over the next 10 years.
The money saved this year would go toward plugging the $176.5 million gap in the Medicaid budget to avert cutting or eliminating payments to health care providers and making up the expected $22 million shortfall in the Department of Corrections budget related to cost overruns in the prisons system.
The bill also replaces $37 million in state money with federal funding to pay for a tax credit benefiting the working poor.
The debt refinancing was included in the collective bargaining bill, but when it didn't pass by early March lawmakers missed a deadline to generate the savings. The Walker administration instead found another way to structure the deal so the refinancing could still get done in time to help fix this year's budget.
The now-stalled union law was expected to generate about $30 million in savings to the state by July through the higher employee contributions and $300 million more over the next two years.
Without that in effect, the state is expected to end the fiscal year with a gross balance of about $46 million. That would rise to about $84 million if the union law takes effect before July.
Walker argued for the union concessions to help blunt the effect of more than $1 billion in cuts he is proposing for schools and local governments in his pending two-year budget.