By JASON SMATHERS
The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Most labor protesters took their signs and sleeping bags and left the Wisconsin Capitol weeks ago, but at least one fixture of the winter protests remains: heightened security. Metal detectors and law enforcement still flank the hallways of the Capitol’s only two open entrances. Six other ground level entrances have been closed for weeks, and protests are now limited to the rotunda’s ground floor, although demonstrators can move about the building when not protesting.
The measures were put into place after thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol in February in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s bill stripping most public workers of collective bargaining rights. Republican lawmakers reported received multiple death threats for their support of the bill, although only one person has been charged for threats emailed to GOP senators. Capitol police also found 41 rounds of .22 caliber ammunition outside the building in early March. Police later said there was no crime connected to the shells.
Although the protests have largely stopped since Walker signed the bill into law late last month, Carla Vigue, a spokesman for the state Department of Administration, would give no indication this week when the added security might be eased. The law remains tied up in the courts.
Some visitors to the Capitol said they didn’t mind the added security.
“It’s a bit inconvenient, but Wisconsin has been in the news and we know why this is needed,” said Rick McGrath, a parent chaperone who visited the Capitol this week with students from Todd Elementary School in Madison. “It could be much worse if they weren’t here and someone did something bad.”
Others were more skeptical.
Dianne Wiegel has been coming to the Capitol for weeks to lead sing-alongs by union protesters. She said she had to wait in line for 20 minutes as police checked a group of children through security Thursday. She doesn’t believe there’s any risk that requires the metal detectors and heavy police presence.
“The court ordered the Capitol open as it was before,” Wiegel said. “One cop I talked to before said as long as Walker feels threatened in here, they’re going to keep it that way.”
Peg Lautenschlager, attorney for the Wisconsin State Employees Union Council, has filed a motion of contempt against DOA Secretary Michael Huebsch, accusing his office of ignoring a March court order to return Capitol access to pre-protest levels.
Vigue said the security level is constantly being evaluated. Police have written at least 12 citations in Capitol in the last month, most for protesters chanting and holding signs on the first floor of the rotunda.
The administration’s position is that the order did not intend to leave the Capitol completely open, citing Dane County Judge John Albert’s remarks when handing down his decision.
According to a transcript of the court proceedings, Albert ordered the DOA to open the Capitol “as open as it was on Jan. 28,” but free expression should be managed “in a way that won’t let the dangerous situation that had occurred reoccur.”
Lautenschlager and DOA attorneys also have discussed installing a special master, someone who would advise parties on Capitol access issues. No action has been taken yet.
Albert has scheduled a hearing on the matter for late May.
There also has been a delay on Capitol damage estimates. In testimony during the court access case, Huebsch said repairing damage to the Capitol building and grounds could cost as much as $7.5 million. Huebsch said tape from protesters’ signs may have damaged the Capitol interior. He later took back those statements, saying repairs could cost as little as $350,000 if no professional restoration work was required.
While the damage estimates are still pending, the DOA has asked for $459,700 to repair and renovate the Capitol grounds. Vigue said $100,000 will go to repairing damage from the protests, while the rest will likely go to replacing the irrigation system, which was planned before the protests.
Restoration expert Charlie Quagliana, who is preparing the Capitol condition report, said he is still conducting tests on the building. He expects to finish next week.