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Distracted Building Commission speeds through approvals

Protestors to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers demonstrate in front of the governor's office Wednesday at the state Capitol in Madison. The crowd could be heard during Wednesday's state Building Commission meeting, which Walker chairs and was in the Governor's Conference Room. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

By James Briggs

On the third day of massive protests from union workers and their supporters Wednesday, the demonstrations stole focus from legislative functions unrelated to Gov. Walker’s proposed budget repair bill.

Walker and other distracted lawmakers approved several million dollars in state building projects with minimal discussion or questioning, as chants throughout the Capitol drowned out meetings.

For instance, Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, was set to lead his first administrative affairs subcommittee of the state Building Commission. As the meeting approached, though, Schultz also was in the midst of working with Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, to draft changes to Walker’s bill, which would eliminate some collective bargaining rights for public workers.

“As important as this is, I’m going to make the judgment that it’s more important to be (in caucus) so we can hopefully stop some of the stuff going on and get back to business,” Schultz said, referring to protests inside and outside of the Capitol.

The Building Commission, which meets monthly, approves more than $1 billion a year in state construction projects. The panel canceled its January meeting because not all members had been appointed at the time.

When informed it wouldnít be feasible to postpone the subcommittee meeting, Schultz plowed through the agenda in 15 minutes, quickly approving every project as state agencies provided affirmative answers to the only question asked: “Will this be competitively bid?”

“We have a caucus” to go to, Schultz said.

Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, the new Building Commission chairman, seemed to be among few lawmakers glad to talk about building projects, as he asked several questions during the higher education subcommittee.

“This is the one committee that clearly, most of the time, keeps politics out of it,” Kaufert said.

Otherwise, politics engulfed the Capitol. Construction workers — most of them private sector employees — from across the state continued to arrive in Madison to support public workers. Terry Tilson, an operating engineer from Milwaukee, skipped the first two days of protest, but came Wednesday by himself to join fellow laborers.

“When injustice is being done, you have to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong,'” Tilson said. “If you’re pro-union or anti-union, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a person, you have to stand up.”

Tilson said he would stay in Madison “as long as it takes” to prevent the loss of collective bargaining for public workers.

Walker, though, during a press conference reaffirmed his commitment to move ahead with his plan.

Workers must contribute higher percentages of their salaries toward benefits, he said.

But the governor also had plenty of time to hear the public’s outrage. Walker chaired the full meeting of the Building Commission, moving through the agenda with speed similar to Schultz’s.

During the half-hour meeting, though, thousands of people were outside the windows of the Governor’s Conference Room, and hundreds more stood just outside the doors, chanting at Walker to “Show your face!” and “Kill this bill!”

Walker officiated the meeting as though it were no different from any other he had participated in, and he didn’t take questions afterward.

But Walker did offer a small promise to lawmakers as he adjourned.

“The March meeting,” he said, “will not be as loud.”

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