Madison - The Wisconsin Capitol was closed to the public Tuesday, partly opened and threatened to be closed again as two weeks of ongoing protests culminated in a day that Gov. Scott Walker has called critical to the progress of the state.
Walker delivered his budget plan for 2011-2013 Tuesday afternoon even as a measure he considers necessary to making that budget work remains stalled by the absence of the entire Democratic Senate delegation.
Walker’s budget adjustment bill, which calls for public employees to pay more for their pensions and health benefits and also would curtail most union bargaining rights, has drawn crowds estimated to be as large as 100,000 to Capitol Square.
Tuesday, however, began more quietly as protesters gathered slowly throughout the morning and attempted to gain entrance to the statehouse.
But lines of police officers blocked the entrances, continuing an unprecedented closure of what is arguably Wisconsin’s most public building that began Sunday night.
After 10 a.m. Tuesday, though, word began to spread through the crowd that a had issued a temporary restraining order against the Walker administration and ordered the Capitol to be opened. Briefly, anger and frustration turned to jubilation.
“Whose house?” shouted protest leaders with megaphones. “Our house!” replied hundreds of marchers circling the building, and the Capitol rotunda.
But despite being ordered to open the Capitol, the administration imposed a set of rules that limited public admission to eight people per legislator – rules that legislative aides said had never been heard of before, much less enforced.
Fred Ludwig, an aide to Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-22nd), said that even in the days immediately after 9/11, nothing approaching the level of security seen Tuesday had ever been enforced at the Capitol.
When protesters learned that the administration had quickly responded to the restraining order and scheduled a hearing at 2:15 p.m. to challenge it, many made their way to the Dane County Courthouse, just two blocks away.
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, when Walker's began to give his address, the court hearing remained under way.
Among those who traveled to the Capitol to take part in the protests was Suzanne Otte Allen of Oconomowoc, who brought daughters Natalie, 3, and Claire, 2, along with a little red wagon filled with provisions and a sign on the side reading, “If governments were angels there would be no need for unions.”
“I’m a teacher in two private schools, and I’m not unionized,” Allen said. “But I think there has to be a balance, opposing forces. The union is a check on the power of government in people’s lives.”
As a teacher, Allen said she feared that reduced wages, benefits and rights, along with reduced state aid to school districts, will drive away good educators and harm the state.
“Education has always been one of the strengths of Wisconsin,” she said. “The ratcheting down of labor wages and benefits will drive the real quality people into the private sector, and then where will we be?
“If education suffers, the whole state suffers, not just now but far into the future.”
A contingent of Milwaukee ironworkers made the trip for the sixth or seventh time – they had lost count as the days ran together.
“I’m here supporting all tradespeople and union people,” said Tom Kelly of Local 8 and a union ironworker for 11 years. “Just telling people that this is wrong, and if they disagree, then they need to read their labor history."
Tony Mayrhofer, also of Local 8, said that it might be difficult to continue his line of work without the union.
“The biggest thing the union does is keep the work site safe, and also a decent living wage,” he said. “It would be a tough decision to have to make, but I don’t know if I could ever be a non-union ironworker.”
Not everyone was in town to protest Walker’s budget bills, however. Some were there to protest the protesters and show Walker their support.
Robert Osheim of Mukwanago, who wore his Packers gear and carried a sign that backed Walker, said he had taken the day to come to Madison “just because I think it’s good to have both sides of the issue.
“I object to the public unions – they’ve gotten too strong. I agree with Scott Walker’s position," he said.
“And besides, it’s fun.”