Reporters were jammed into a stuffy room in the Capitol on the afternoon of June 14, waiting for debate on a bill that would deprive public employees of their collective bargaining rights in the state budget. The hearing kept getting postponed.
A heavily made-up Fox News reporter kept checking her hair and adjusting her microphone as 4 turned into 5.
Finally, a reporter sitting beside me got a message that the Supreme Court had reversed the injunction on Scott Walker's original union-busting bill. It was now law. There was no need for the hearing.
As everyone drifted into the hallway, a few protesters wearing pink slips peeked in. But the marble halls were mainly empty. I bumped into my daughter's elementary school teacher, and we reminisced about how we saw each other here in February, in the huge crowd that jammed the Capitol the night the Assembly first rammed through the union-busting bill. It seemed like everyone we knew was there, shoulder to shoulder, resisting this outrageous attack on teachers, public employees and democracy itself in our state. I gave her the bad news, and we shook our heads.
Word of the decision spread among the handful of people milling about the Rotunda. Outside, a sizable crowd had gathered on the steps. But for the first time, I didn't feel buoyed up by being among my fellow Wisconsinites at one of these protests. It was a beautiful evening, bands were playing, speakers led some now-familiar chants, and the mood was festive and relaxed. Most people didn't even know yet what we had just lost.
Walker's move to end collective bargaining was what first brought us all together. It was what sent the 14 Democratic senators fleeing to Illinois and sparked the teacher walkout that grew into those massive weekend rallies of hundreds of thousands.
But Walker waited us out, just like he said he would. First, he pushed through his bill, violating open meetings law. Then his cronies on the court sided with him in this slipshod, last-minute decision, which essentially says that the Legislature can do as it pleases - no need to follow normal rules.
In its "extraordinary session," the Republican leadership turned the normal budget process into an emergency race to the finish, savaging education, health care and middle-class programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, bringing back child labor, loosening environmental protections, concentrating historic powers in the governor's office, and doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to big corporations, giving the lie to the nonsense about a budget "crisis" that justifies belt-tightening.
It's not like we haven't spoken up. Our elected officials have simply announced their complete contempt for us. They plan to liquidate our school system, sell off our land, pollute our lakes, kill programs that help children and families and the poor, launch massive, expensive highway projects and starve municipalities of funds to maintain local roads, and thumb their noses at voters and their representatives who are yelling and singing and chanting and marching and demanding that they stop.
Here in Madison, we all feel the attack on public employees. Hell, we are practically a company town of public employees. For months we have been dealing with the fallout of Walker's war on public service: the mass retirements, the political appointees who want to destroy the work of model agencies they now lead, and, of course, the kick-in-the-gut pay and benefit cuts we and our families and friends will absorb.
But actually, the redder parts of the state - rural communities and towns in the north and west - will take the brunt of the Republican slash-and-burn budget.
"The 2011"2013 state budget imposes disproportionate spending cuts on northern Wisconsin schools, communities and services, while providing corporate and business tax breaks that small, main street businesses will never benefit from," says state Sen. Jim Holperin, whose District 12 office is in Eagle River.
Removing the homestead and Earned Income Tax Credit programs will take a hard toll on working people who don't make a lot of money. At the same time, new corporate tax cuts will cost the state $2.3 billion over the next decade - half a billion in the next biennium alone.
The Milwaukee interchange sucks up more than half of the $410 million increase in highway spending, while towns lose $310 million for road repair. The $1.6 billion in cuts to K-12 education, coupled with the expansion of virtual charters, will devastate rural communities as schools close and towns die. The 30% cut to technical colleges will also hurt places like the 12th Senate District, which has three tech colleges but no university campus.
My own state representative, Mark Pocan, summed up the budget, after it passed the state Assembly at 3:30 in the morning on a straight party-line vote, as "a historic attack on the middle class."
That pretty much sums up the whole Walker agenda. Now the whole state will begin to feel the effects.
The most powerful thing about the February rallies was the diversity of the crowds of workers from all over the state, as people came together to defend our common interests. This budget highlights those common interests - and all that we have to lose as a community - more than ever.
Let's hope the silver lining in this awful budget is a backlash so powerful it overwhelms those first signs of protest in early spring.
Ruth Conniff ia the political editor of The Progressive.