BY KEVIN LEE FOR THE WISCONSIN REPORTER IN MADISON — The protesters have left the Wisconsin Capitol for now, but Senate Democrats face arrest if the lawmakers fail to return to the chamber.
Senate Republicans on Thursday issued a resolution that authorizes the Senate sergeant-at arms to arrest their Democratic colleagues should the absent lawmakers be found in the state. The 19 Democrats could be arrested for contempt of Senate rules that prohibit them from being absent for an “entire day without first obtaining a leave of absence,” according to the resolution.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said in a statement his caucus has no immediate plans to return to the Capitol.
Democrats fled the state last month rather than vote of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill aims to ease a $136.7 million budget shortfall over the next few months. The plan eliminating most public union collective bargaining agreements.
The proposal remains stalled in the Senate because the 19 Republicans need at least one Democrat present to reach the 20-member quorum needed for a vote on financial matters.
At one point, more than 75,000 people crowded in and around the Capitol to protest Walker’s plan.
The departure of three dozen demonstrators — mostly people in their late teens and early 20s, though a few older protesters were present Thursday — came after a Wisconsin judge ruled earlier in the night that authorities could apprehend those who stayed in the Capitol past the normal closing time of 6 p.m.
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs called for a “return to normalcy” while discussing matters with protest organizers.
Dane County Circuit Judge John Albert ruled on the question of Capitol access after three days of testimony that pitted union organizers against the governor.
Last weekend, the Walker administration began the process of moving protesters out of the Capitol while limiting access to the East Wing entrance. The governor and lawmakers indicated growing concerns for safety and cleanliness of the facility.
Walker indicated in a news conference Thursday that there were attempts by protesters to breach one of the entrances locked down by authorities.
“That’s a major concern if local authorities don’t feel they can assure the public of their safety if they can’t assure the safety of their own,” he said.
Earlier this week, Capitol Police and local authorities instituted a “one-in, one-out” policy in the East Wing entrance while all other wings were closed to the public. The total number of outside visitors was capped by law enforcement, but a total number could not be determined.
Peggy Lautenschlager, an attorney representing the unions that brought the case against the governor, said the Capitol would re-open without restriction during normal hours when it opens for business next week. She said she was “relieved” that the judicial process was over.
As of now, local authorities will allow posters and banners to remain on display in the Capitol rotunda, and the Wisconsin Historical Society has shown an interest in collecting some of the various paraphernalia.
Protesters began setting up sleeping bags and air mattresses inside the Capitol after Walker announced his budget adjustment proposal in early February.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration estimates it could cost the state $8 million to restore the Capitol to its pre-protest condition, Wisconsin media are reporting. The estimate includes $500,000 to remove adhesive from taped posters, $1 million to repair the structure’s exterior and $6.5 million for rebuffing the interior marble.