By the time I got there, it was already over and it was just beginning. I walked through the doors of the state Capitol at 6:23 pm, having raced back downtown after hearing word that the Republican state senators were meeting to achieve at least some of what's been denied them by the exodus of their 14 Democratic colleagues on Feb. 17.
"It's going to be a riot," I overheard one person say as he crossed the street with me. Already, several hundred people were gathered outside, some in a line trying to get in. "Whose house? Our house!" was the chant of the moment. "Shame!" was another.
By 6:30 p.m. I was inside the Capitol, having gained easy admission by holding up my thick wad of daily press passes from the last several weeks. The guards waved me through. But there was no legislative action to witness.
"They just passed the collective bargaining bill," a legislative aide told me. "It took about a minute and a half." A minute and a half to accomplish what nearly a full month of GOP bullying and threats had failed to do. The hoped-for end of public employee unions in Wisconsin was achieved with a dirty trick.
For weeks, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans have been saying that the gutting of collective bargaining is absolutely essential to deal with the state's budget crisis, as it will give local governments and schools "the tools" i.e., no other choice but to impose the same unilateral benefit cuts on their employees as those Walker wants for state workers. Both Walker and GOP leaders have stated repeatedly that the part of the bill that deals with collective bargaining rights is a fiscal issue.
Heck, the governor's office put out a press release on this just yesterday, entitled "Collective Bargaining Has a Fiscal Impact Part 4". That the release is entitled "Part 4" is a clue to the fact that this has been a recurring theme.
But suddenly, this afternoon, the Senate's leadership decided that this part of the bill really wasn't a fiscal matter at all, and so there was no reason it couldn't be split off for the rest of the budget bill and voted on. Fiscal items require a quorum of 20; non-fiscal items can be passed with 17. There are 19 Senate Republicans.
And so, just after 6 p.m. this evening, they met and passed a brand new version of the budget bill that puts the whammy on workers' rights so their benefits can be savaged, claiming for the first time that this is not a fiscal measure. The vote, I'm told, was 18-1, with all except Sen. Dale Schultz voting in favor.
Inside the Capitol when I entered were several hundred protesters, most congregated outside of the Senate, where this vote had taken place. I used my press pass to get into a corridor behind the Senate chamber. It was loaded with law enforcement officers.
At 6:43 p.m., as the demonstrators outside chanted "The whole world is watching!" the security prepared to lead the 19 senators from a back room to which they had retired to safety. Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs and UW Campus Police Chief Sue Riesling were both there, along with at least two dozen officers. "Stay to the left and you'll be fine!" shouted Riesling as the senators began their journey. I'm sure she meant left in a directional and not political sense.
I was standing in an open doorway off to the side of this corridor as the senators paraded past. An officer in front of me said the senators had asked that no one take pictures. "Do you think that is a reasonable request?" I asked him, as I snapped away. Eventually he put his hand up in front of my camera. The senators filtered out the doorway and down a flight of steps. I wasn't able to follow them.
Afterward, I made my way to the Assembly hearing room, where Democrats were holding a press conference. Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly's minority leader, was at the podium, flanked by a dozen of his colleagues. He was surprisingly restrained, given his evidently biblical rage.
"The big picture is just so clear. They will stop at nothing to ensure that they do what the people of Wisconsin do not want" the eradication of collective bargaining rights. "They felt the urgency to violate the law and cram this thing through."
Barca was referring to the fact that the Senate session was not noticed 24 hours in advance, as the state's Open Meetings Law requires, except for extraordinary circumstances. Here's the law, state statute 19.84(3): "Public notice of every meeting of a governmental body shall be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of such meeting unless for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical…"
There was no good reason this meeting had to be held without 24 hours' notice, said Barca. There was no reason for this at all. "The law is very clear," said Barca. "I do not believe this action will stand. What they did was improper and illegal."
According to Barca, the Assembly is being called back into session tomorrow, at 11 a.m., after being told no session would be held. He said the Assembly Dems will be there, prepared to fight, knowing they don't have the votes to prevail.
"They may win this battle tomorrow," he said, "but I am quite certain they will not win this war." He predicted a backlash that is even now occurring, as I type these words.
The officers stopped letting people into the building at 7 p.m., just as I was leaving. I asked one of them why: "'Cause the Senate's not in session and the building's closed." But people have continued to flood downtown. Outside my window across the street from the Capitol, the din is deafening -- honking horns and shouts and cheers as thousands of people continue to flock to the Capitol.
Barca, at the press conference, indicated that this would happen. "I expect the crowds are going to get bigger rather than smaller this weekend," said Barca. "I have little doubt that the recalls [of Republican senators who passed the bill] will be effective."
Rep. Mark Pocan, talking to David Douglas of Ch. 3, made a similar point: "The governor has showed us he has no respect for the public and there's going to be a reaction."
At 6:53 there is a loud thud as something hit the hearing room window, or near it. A woman inside went to the window and held up her hand, flashing a peace sign to those outside. "Democrat," it seemed to say. "Friend."
Barca said the Senate Democrats are on their way back to Wisconsin, to vent their outrage over what has occurred. Whoa. I asked him if maybe this was all a trick, to achieve just this result. Hold an illegal vote, get the Dems to come back, achieve a quorum even if it requires the use of shackles and chains, and pass the budget bill legally.
Barca allowed that this was possible: "I wouldn't put anything past the people who are presiding over this body at this point."