BY KEVIN LEE FOR THE WISCONISIN REPORTER IN MADISON – After spending nearly a month away from Madison, the state’s Senate Democrats returned to the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday to a hero’s welcome from tens of thousands of labor supporters around Capitol Square.

The 14 Democrats, dubbed the “Fab 14” by backers, had avoided the Senate chamber since mid-February in an attempt to stall Gov. Scott Walker’s push for changes to union organization and collective bargaining procedures.

But Walker signed those revisions into law on Friday, after top GOP lawmakers used a legislative maneuver on Wednesday to strip away fiscal elements from Walker’s original budget repair proposal.

The maneuver allowed the 19 Senate Republicans to vote on the union changes without their Democratic colleagues. Assembly Republicans passed the revised proposal on Thursday.

The final measure allows public employees to collectively bargain for wages, but any wage increases higher than inflation would have to go to voters through a referendum. All other matters, such as sick leave and health insurance provider, would be restricted from negotiation.

Firefighters and police officers are exempt from the changes. Public employees must also contribute more to their health care and pension plans.

Saturday began with thousands lining Capitol Square awaiting the return of the Senate Democrats. During the morning, a group of farmers entered the square on tractors of all shapes and sizes in support of public employees.

At 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the Senators then made their way up the Capitol steps on the State Street entrance, escorted by local firefighters and police officers, to the chants of “Thank You! Thank You!”

Even with the legislative defeat, the returning Democrats proclaimed victory, hoping to ride the resurgent wave of angered labor groups into a likely contentious legislative session loaded with recall efforts, followed by a critical 2012 election period.

Before the official reemergence of the missing senators, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, lambasted his Democratic colleagues for leaving the state.

“Today, the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin are going to pat themselves on the back and smile for the cameras. They’re going to pretend they’re heroes for taking a three-week vacation,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

His statement continues: “It is an absolute insult to the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who are struggling to find a job, much less one they can run away from and go down to Illinois – with pay.”

Democrats dismissed Fitzgerald’s statement as political pandering and claimed Republicans were the ones who pushed through union changes without compromise.

“All of us are proud to stand by the reason why we left the state: to protect workers’ rights,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona.”We will proudly defend what we’ve done, because we are standing to protect people, to keep them with their long-established rights here in Wisconsin. I would hate to have to defend the record of the Republicans.”

State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, lamented how polarized politics had become as of late.

“That’s the way it didn’t used to be, that’s the way it is today,” said Cullen, who is in his second stint in the Senate after serving from 1975 to 1989.

Cullen revealed he and other Senate Democrats had met with both Fitzgerald and Walker Administration officials separately in Wisconsin over the last two weeks in an attempt to hash out a compromise on Walker’s union proposals to no avail.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said he and his colleagues paid for all expenses on their own during their time in Illinois.

“This came out of our pockets. There’s no other way to say it. We paid for it,” he said. “We will absolutely, positively not ask the state, all 14 of us, to reimburse us.”

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said beyond the collective bargaining changes, voters are concerned with unresolved budget issues.

“It’s not just a matter of what happened with this budget repair bill, it’s what’s happening in this budget. In my district, schools are going to close. People are going to get kicked off of health care,” she said.

On top of the union and collective bargaining changes, the original budget adjustment legislation Walker had proposed would have restructured $165 million in debt, freeing up money to go towards Medicaid payments.

That debt restructuring was a fiscal matter stripped away when GOP lawmakers revised the bill on Wednesday, and no indication has been made by the governor or lawmakers on when or how they would address the money needed for Medicaid.

The governor’s state budget director has already indicated that state Medicaid money could run out by mid-May, leaving state government with unpaid bills to medical providers and vendors.

In the upcoming weeks, senators from both sides will have to juggle trying to address a $3.6 billion budget deficit over the next two-year budget with staving off grassroots recall campaigns.

Various recall committees are gathering signatures to recall all 16 senators who are eligible for recall this year, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the state body that handles elections.

Recall provides a process for elected officials to face another election before their term expires, not for the elected official’s automatic removal from office. Signatures to initiate the recall process are due either in late April or early May. State law requires that elected officials hold office for a year before they can be subject to recall.

Cullen said both sides are reeling from the politically fraught battle waged over almost a month.

“We’ve gone from 24/7 news cycles now to 24/7 elections. I don’t think that serves the institution (of the Senate) well at all,” he said. “I think the reality is all 33 of us need to slow down for a while.”

The full Senate is not scheduled to reconvene until April 5.

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