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Harsdorf: Adoption of Walker bill crucial for state, local levels

Despite intense opposition, adoption of the budget-repair bill is necessary to help Wisconsin take control of its budget and local governments handle theirs as state aids are cut, said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf.

Harsdorf, a Republican member of the Joint Committee on Finance which approved the bill on a party-line 12-4 vote, spoke by phone from her rural River Falls home the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 21.

She had returned home the Friday night before and was waiting Monday to be plowed out so she could head for Madison yet that night.

Monday was the seventh day of massive protests in Madison.

"People should have the right to exercise their right to protest," said Harsdorf, taking no offense to the picketers and signs flooding the capital.

"We understand that these are tough choices, they're painful...," she said of Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to pass a bill that would strip public employee unions of most of their bargaining powers and increase employee contributions to both health insurance premiums and pensions.

"But what the governor is trying to do is to avoid massive layoffs," Harsdorf said.

She said Walker insists that without cutting costs and refinancing existing debt, the state will have to lay off 5,500 state workers. The layoffs will be made by various state agencies and don't require legislative approval, said Harsdorf.

Walker's budget-repair bill would require most public workers to pay half their pension contributions and at least 12% of their monthly health insurance premiums.

Their raises would be limited to inflation, unless a bigger increase was approved in a voter referendum.

One reason Walker put this bill out there now is to lay groundwork for the budget bill he must introduce shortly, Harsdorf said.

She said that new budget will include significant reductions in state aid to local municipalities, and the current budget-repair bill is intended to give local governments the tools to deal with those cuts.

The sweeping budget-repair bill also provides for $165 million in bond refinancing that must be acted on by Friday to make sure the state meets its bills in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The Senate planned to meet Tuesday to act on matters it can handle without a quorum, said Harsdorf. A Democratic walkout is leaving the Senate one short of the 20 members it needs to act on appropriation bills such as budget matters. But the Senate can and planned to act on other matters starting Tuesday, said Harsdorf.

According to state media reports, the Republican leadership of the Senate is attempting to lure boycotting senators back by forcing a vote on a bill that would require people to show a photo ID at the polls.

Democrats have been vehemently opposed to that measure.

The budget-repair bill must be passed by both houses of the Legislature to become law.

The Assembly was scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Tuesday to take up the bill, with debate expected to last for hours as Democrats offer over 100 amendments to the bill.

Assemblyman Erik Severson (R-Star Prairie), who represents the 28th District, said he will vote in favor of the bill when the time comes.

"I'm in favor of this bill," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We were elected in November to come down and fix this problem.

"It's important that the collective bargaining restrictions be adopted as part of the bill so the issue is put to rest and not passed on to a future legislature, Severson said.

Calls from RiverTown Newspaper Group asking to talk with 29th District Assemblyman John Murtha, R-Baldwin, were not returned.

'Respectful environment'

Despite strong feelings on both sides, for the most part the atmosphere in the Capitol has been civil, though tension increased last week as the days passed, said Harsdorf.

Last week Tuesday and Wednesday there were thousands of people in the Capitol, but the atmosphere was civil, said Harsdorf. Things changed by Thursday.

"I would say it was a very respectful environment," said Harsdorf of the atmosphere early in the week. "On Tuesday and Wednesday, you could walk through the crowd."

But by Thursday, protestors blocked Capitol workers as they attempted to move through the building. "There was a great deal of security," Harsdorf added.

On Saturday there were protestors from both sides, but she understood things were peaceful, said Harsdorf.

Overwhelmed with calls

Constituent contacts have swamped her office, leaving staffers unable to keep up, said Harsdorf.

"We've been overwhelmed with calls and e-mails," she said. "We have been inundated."

Harsdorf said her office kept at least three people answering phones at all times last week, but they weren't able to keep up with the calls and many went to voice mail.

Staffers tried to keep ahead of calls and clear out mailboxes so more calls could come in, but weren't always successful, said Harsdorf. "It's been impossible to keep up."

She said it wasn't practical to give a proportionate breakdown of calls and e-mails on either side of the issue, but the overall tone was respectful and civil.

"Obviously people are very passionate about their views," said Harsdorf. "It's divided."

A lot of the phone calls have been "robo-calls," automated calls that originate from special interest groups outside the state, said Harsdorf. Those, she said, are overwhelmingly against the bill.

She said it's also hard to get a handle on the tone of e-mails because some people have individually sent 20 or more.

"Some people have sent in multiple e-mails," said Harsdorf.

A better gauge for her seemed to be the contacts she had in River Falls over the weekend.

On Sunday when she went to church and shopped for groceries, a number of people stopped her to talk.

Even though she didn't keep a running tally, it seemed to her that the people who talked to her directly were fairly evenly divided between those who support the bill and those who object to it, said Harsdorf.

Editor's Note: New Richmond News Editor Jeff Holmquist contributed to this story.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.