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Wisconsin Lawmaker Fights Budget Cuts

Seeks compromise on Medicaid, union rights

One of the fathers of Wisconsin's law allowing state employees to join a union isn't ready to budge on a tactic that blocks the Republican-led legislature from voting on the governor's plan to roll back those collective bargaining rights.

"We're not going to stay out forever, but I don't see exiting right now," said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, the longest-serving state legislator in the country.

Risser was 31 in 1959 when he helped enact the legislation to allow teachers and other public employees to unionize, the first such legislation in the nation. Today, at 83, he is drawing international headlines for being part of a group of 14 Democratic state senators who decamped to Illinois to prevent action on the budget bill, which would also give the Republican governor unilateral power to change the state's Medicaid rules.

The state Senate requires the presence of 20 senators to conduct a vote on the bill; the chamber has 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. As long as the Democrats remain unified in their opposition, Gov. Scott Walker's approach to trimming the state deficit can't be adopted.

Living on the lam isn't easy, Risser said in a telephone interview from a hotel in an Illinois town he declined to identify.

"I don't think walking is a solution in every case," said Risser, who has served in the legislature since 1956, often in leadership roles. "It was a unique situation."

Risser, a liberal Democrat, said leaving was the only way the Democrats could draw public attention to what is in the bill.

"We have to develop a compromise," Risser said, adding that "compromise" is not a dirty word. "If we do that, there will be no losers.

"I have worked with a dozen governors — half of them Democrats and half of them Republicans. Never before has there been a situation where a governor has been so uncompromising. That's the genius of democracy. We settle our disagreements by compromise, not by guns."

Walker has given no indication that he will compromise on what he calls the budget repair bill, an attempt to eliminate the state's roughly $3 billion deficit. The most controversial portion of the measure strips public employee unions of most bargaining rights, but it also gives the Walker administration the right to make changes to the state-administered Medicaid program.

While the Madison situation has attracted tens of thousands of protesters and captured international media attention, fleeing is not a new legislative technique.

In 1840, Abraham Lincoln's fellow Whig Party members left Springfield, the Illinois capital, to avoid a vote on a measure that would have required the state's central bank to dispense gold and silver rather than paper currency. Lincoln, who remained in Springfield, jumped out of a window in an unsuccessful attempt to block a quorum. The Democrats had brought in ailing legislators and locked the chamber's doors. Lincoln's presence made a quorum, so he jumped.

While Risser said the decision to leave the state was a consensus of the 14 legislators, several who know him well say he is a master of parliamentary procedure who likely played a key role in the plan.

"He probably knows parliamentary procedure better than anyone else," said Wayne Whittow, the Milwaukee city treasurer who served with Risser in the legislature in the 1960s and '70s. "Sen. Risser knew how to use the rules of the Senate."

The 14 Democrats met at 8 a.m. Feb. 17, and were out of town by 10 a.m., Risser said. They are staying in different Illinois hotels but meet daily, he said, adding that his wife brought him clean clothes and other provisions.

"I'm on my cellphone all day talking to constituents," Risser said.

Risser's office has been swamped with 10,000 calls and e-mails, he said, adding that he believes most of his constituents support what he has done.

While the spotlight has been on Walker's attempt to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of public employees, much more is at stake.

"He is taking over the whole Medicaid program," Risser said. "What he's proposed is dangerous, very dangerous. It would give the governor almost dictatorial control over Medicaid funds."

Walker's proposal allows his administration to make changes to the program with neither public input nor approval of the legislature.

"Current law requires public comment and public input before any changes are made," said Terry Tuschen, Risser's legislative aide. "It's an emergency rule that would supersede state law and have no end date."

D'Anna Bowman, AARP Wisconsin state director, agreed that the Medicaid issue is critical.

"AARP Wisconsin is concerned that decisions could be made behind closed doors to increase costs and change existing benefits and services to Medicaid participants," Bowman said.

While the flight of the Democrats has outraged supporters of the bill, some of whom have suggested recalling the renegade legislators, Risser is not in much political danger. His district includes the Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus. He faced no Republican opposition in his last four reelection campaigns. In 1992, in his most recent contested race, Risser won with 67 percent of the vote. "If Fred wanted another term and the election was tomorrow, he'd win easily," said Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz. "He's widely viewed as a hero in his district."

Marie Rohde is a freelance writer in Glendale, Wis.

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