By Scott Bauer
Madison — A group of Wisconsin lawmakers blocked passage of a sweeping anti-union bill Thursday by ignoring orders to attend a vote and instead left the state to force Republicans to negotiate over the proposal.
As ever-growing throngs of protesters filled the Capitol for a third day, the 14 Democrats disappeared from the Capitol.
They were not in their offices, and aides said they did not know where any of them had gone.
Hours later, one of them told The Associated Press the group had left Wisconsin.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Democrats fled to slow down consideration of the bill in the hopes Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers would discuss changes.
“The plan is to try and slow this down because it’s an extreme piece of legislation that’s tearing this state apart,” Erpenbach said in a telephone interview.
He refused to say where he was. Other Democratic lawmakers sent messages over Twitter and issued written statements, but did not say where they were.
The Democrats failed to show up when the Senate started its business around midday Thursday, and the sergeant at arms began looking for them. If he’s unable to find them, he’s authorized to seek help, including potentially contacting police.
Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller released a statement on behalf of all Democrats urging Walker and Republicans to listen to opponents of the measure and seek a compromise. His statement did not identify where Democrats were or when they planned to return.
“Today they checked out, and I’m not sure where they’re at,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.
“This is the ultimate shutdown, what we’re seeing today.”
According to Senate rules and the state constitution, absent members can be compelled to appear, but neither explains how.
Republicans hold a 19-14 majority, but they need at least one Democrat to be present before taking a vote on the bill.
As Republicans tried to begin Senate business Thursday, observers in the gallery screamed “Freedom! Democracy! Unions!” Opponents cheered when a legislative leader announced there were not enough senators present to proceed.
The bill came to the Senate after the Legislature’s budget committee endorsed it just before midnight Wednesday. Once passed by the Senate, the Assembly would take it up. Democrats in that chamber were present Thursday and they were cheered and high-fived by protesters as they left for closed-door caucus meetings.
Walker and Republican leaders have said they have the votes to pass the plan. Walker had planned a news conference for Thursday afternoon.
Thousands of protesters clogged the hallway outside the Senate chamber beating on drums, holding signs deriding Walker and pleading for lawmakers to kill the bill as the expected vote neared. Protesters also demonstrated outside the homes of some lawmakers.
Hundreds of teachers called in sick, forcing a number of school districts to cancel classes. Madison schools, the state’s second-largest district with 24,000 students, closed for a second day as teachers poured into the Capitol.
Hundreds more people, many of them students from the nearby University of Wisconsin, slept in the rotunda for a second night.
“We are all willing to come to the table, we have all been willing from day one,” said Madison teacher Rita Miller. “But you can’t take A, B, C, D and everything we’ve worked for in one fell swoop.”
The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all nonfederal public employees.
“The story around the world is the rush to democracy,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch of Poplar during the committee debate on the measure Wednesday night. “The story in Wisconsin is the end of the democratic process.”
In addition to eliminating collective bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage — increases Walker calls “modest” compared to those in the private sector.
Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve — $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to deal with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
“I think the taxpayers will support this idea,” Fitzgerald said.
Wisconsin has long been a bastion for workers’ rights. It was the first state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees more than a half-century ago. And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.
But when voters elected Walker, an outspoken conservative, along with GOP majorities in both legislative chambers, it set the stage for a dramatic reversal of the state’s labor history.
Under Walker’s plan, state employees’ share of pension and health care costs would go up by an average of 8 percent.
Unions still could represent workers but could not seek pay increases above those pegged to the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized.
In exchange for bearing more costs and losing bargaining leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.
AP writers Todd Richmond and Jason Smathers contributed to this story.