MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin's governor threatened Thursday to issue thousands of layoff notices within 24 hours if Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois fail to return for a vote on a measure that would cripple public unions, and their Republican colleagues also stepped up the pressure by authorizing police to round up the missing lawmakers.
The efforts marked the most drastic steps in the standoff that has extended more than two weeks, halting action on Gov. Scott Walker's plan to end most collective bargaining for state workers, which he says is critical to solving the state's budget crisis.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Walker said he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state workers on Friday if his proposal, which also would force the workers to pay more for benefits, isn't passed. Because the Senate Democrats left, the chamber doesn't have a quorum.
While Walker said he is actively working with some of the Democrats in hopes of striking a deal, he told the AP he won't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.
"I can't take any of that off the table," he said. "We cannot tear apart this budget. We cannot put this burden on local governments. But if there are other ways they are willing to work with us to find a pathway back, I think that's what people want."
The Republican leader of the state Senate signed orders finding the 14 AWOL Democrats in contempt and allowing the chamber's sergeant at arms to use police force to detain them if necessary. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says his orders are only binding should the senators return to Wisconsin.
The Senate passed a resolution earlier in the day setting a 4 p.m. deadline for the senators to appear at the chamber. When none of them did, Fitzgerald signed the orders in dramatic fashion — in the center of the Senate chamber. State patrol officers watched silently from the gallery as Fitzgerald signed the orders executing the order. The Democrats left in protest over an anti-union bill.
Senate Democrats disagreed with Fitzgerald about what's allowed under the chamber's rules. Sen. Chris Larson said they hadn't done anything illegal and couldn't be arrested.
"All 14 of us remain in Illinois, very strong in our convictions," Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a statement. "Issuing arrest warrants ... isn't going to solve the problem."
Fitzgerald called on any Wisconsin citizens who see the senators to contact police. He argued the resolution is about restoring order to the Senate and not the issues surrounding the union bill, which has led to three weeks of demonstrations by tens of thousands of protesters at the state Capitol.
Walker's budget proposal hinges on the state saving $330 million over two years from forcing state workers to pay more for their benefits. He's also cutting aid to schools and local governments by about $1 billion, reductions he says they can't handle without the freedom he gives them through eliminating nearly all collective bargaining with public workers.
Walker said he has to issue the layoff notices starting Friday so the state can start to realize the $30 million savings he had assumed would come from the state worker concessions contained in the bill. The layoffs wouldn't be effective for 31 days, and Walker said he could rescind them if the bill passed in the meantime.
All state workers, except those at prisons, state hospitals and other facilities open around the clock, would be potential layoff targets, he said.
"I pushed it off as long as I could because I do not want to have layoffs," Walker said.
Walker said he was talking with some of the "more reasonable members" of the missing Democrats, sometimes multiple times a day, about a deal that could get them to come back.
"I'm still cautiously optimistic we can get this done," Walker said. "I think we're close, but the problem is we thought we were close the past couple days."
Walker refused to say what issues they were discussing.
"We've laid out a path that we think gives them certainly not everything they wanted but some things they're interested in and some things we found to be reasonable that we could accommodate," he said.
Police said at a Thursday court hearing over public access to the Capitol that they found 41 rounds of .22-caliber ammunition scattered at several locations outside the building earlier in the day. The revelation came as state attorneys asked a Dane County judge to order the Capitol closed for a security sweep. The judge made no immediate ruling on the request.
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, a union representing 11,000 law enforcement officials from across the state, released a statement from its director Jim Palmer slamming the Senate Republicans' resolution to go after the Democrats.
"The thought of using law enforcement officers to exercise force in order to achieve a political objective is insanely wrong and Wisconsin sorely needs reasonable solutions and not potentially dangerous political theatrics," Palmer said.
Marquette University Law School professor Dan Blinka said no matter how it's described, the resolution calls for what amounts to an arrest that would have to be justified under the law. If it's found unconstitutional, any action taken by the senators after they were forced to return could be invalidated, Blinka said.
Howard Schweber, an associate political science and law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Senate Republicans can properly order police to enforce their rules, as long as they don't try to impose criminal sanctions on the Democrats.
A memo provided by private attorney Jim Troupis, who was hired by the Senate Republicans and often works with the GOP, said the state Constitution gives them authority to act to compel attendance under its rules.
Fitzgerald also cited a Wednesday circuit court ruling in Oconto County that found Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin had violated his duty to attend Senate sessions, but that only the Senate had the right to enforce the rule that he be there. A citizen in Holperin's district, who was also represented by Troupis, brought the legal action.
Once the senators do return, Fitzgerald said they could face reprimand, censure or even expulsion.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.
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