Vriezen: Wisconsin Democrats purposely excluded from budget cuts vote

Claire Vriezen

I am not usually one to get heavily involved in politics beyond social issues. I avoid discussions of fiscal policy or health care programs, mainly because I don’t want to give an opinion on a topic I haven’t thoroughly researched.

Regardless of what the policies actually are, there is something to be said for the political process itself. America has a rather good system of checks and balances overall, but when one of those systems is corrupted, someone must speak up.

Unless you pay no attention to the news, you will have heard of the recent protests in Madison, Wis. In short, the Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is pushing a budget bill that will take away all collective bargaining rights of public-employee unions. The bill would also force these employees to put 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions as well as nearly double their health care premiums.

While Democrats and Republicans have offered other plans and amendments for the bill, Walker refuses to budge. Unions have even agreed to the cutting of benefits, but remain steadfast in maintaining their collective-bargaining rights.

While the Democratic senators remain out of state in an attempt to block the passing of the bill, the Wisconsin Assembly is still meeting to vote on amendments to various bills, including Walker’s.

In a stunningly underhanded move last week, Wisconsin Republicans began an Assembly session before the scheduled time and without the Democratic representatives. Footage from the session shows the Republican speaker taking roll and beginning voting on amendments before Democrats had entered the chambers and before the time the session was to begin.

About five minutes in, a Democrat representative runs into the room and clearly calls for a “point of privilege.” A point of privilege is typically used to address issues of misconduct within the assembly; and I hope most would agree, starting a session before it is scheduled and holding votes seems to fall into that category.

Shockingly, the speaker plows right ahead with the voting, despite the first voice of protest.

The Democrats then file in, a minute before the official start time of the session, with a loud uproar as the voting proceeds without them. The shouting eventually subsides enough for Rep. Peter Barca to demand he be recognized by the speaker and that the previous vote be thrown out.

In the end, after much debate, the vote was rescinded and proper presentation and debate of amendments was postponed. Had the voting been sustained, the bill would have passed a point in the legislation where it could be amended, leaving no room for future negotiation.

Now, regardless of what you may think of the current state of politics in Wisconsin and regardless of your political alignment, corrupting of the legislative process is unacceptable.

While it is true, one could point out that the session only began five or six minutes ahead of schedule. It seems like a small time difference, I grant you. But it is in the conduct of the Republicans after the debacle begins that is perhaps worse.

Not only is the session started early, but amendments are skipped over on the agenda in order to get to the budget bill while the Democrats are still en route. Once the Democrats arrive on the scene, the Republican staff encouraged leaders to “keep going” despite cries of protest.

These Republicans have the majority in the House, meaning they have little to fear from the sheer voting power of the Democrats. It seems they are simply working to avoid any possible debate and discussion of proposed amendments. For a bill that proposes such drastic changes in the public employee unions, the least they could do is be open to discourse about the matter.

As the protester turn-out has shown, a significant number of Wisconsin residents are opposed to passing the bill as it stands. The unions have shown willingness to concede benefits, as long as their bargaining rights remain intact.

If the Republicans would take the time and have the decency to listen and debate the proposed amendments, perhaps a middle ground could be reached. Their eagerness to bypass proper conduct for their own purposes only incenses the opponents of the bill and increases the already tense negotiations.

Hopefully these coming weeks will bring a compromise between the unions and the government of Wisconsin and the Republicans in Wisconsin owe it to their constituents to behave as upstanding members of the Assembly to which they were elected.

No one is ever happy with budget cuts and changes that must be made in the current economy, but our government at least owes us a system that makes those changes fairly and with the due process that has been given to the legislative bodies.