MADISON, Wis. — The fight in Wisconsin’s capital is marked by a fundamental disagreement over Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal. Protesters claim it’s a blatant assault on labor unions, while the governor’s supporters say it’s about government spending, plain and simple.
The Heritage Foundation sent a team to Wisconsin to report on the action. Our video captures the claims of pro-union protesters as well as state Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Republican supporter of Walker’s budget plan.
“It’s about rights; it’s not about the money,” protesters called out. Many told us they represented not only their own interests, but the interests of the rest of the country as well. “This is what democracy looks like,” they chanted.
But Vukmir said Walker and the Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature remain confident that the people of Wisconsin — the silent majority, she said — want legislators to make the difficult decisions necessary to balance the budget. That’s why Wisconsinites elected the officials they did, Vukmir said.
For all that protesters said they weren’t marching on the Capitol because of money, the protest had definite overtones of class-consciousness.
Numerous signs proclaimed, “Tax the rich,” and protesters frequently cited that mantra as the solution to budget problems.
Some denied the deficit entirely, saying Walker “manufactured” the budget crisis to justify this bill, which some said he must want to pass because he has dictatorial ambitions.
The protests were notably organized, with signs posted throughout the Capitol building providing “media talking points” for protesters. At least one taught protesters “how to talk to teabaggers.”
“They will be trying to provoke you!” the sign proclaimed. Perhaps because of the promptings of such signs, many protesters refused to speak with us when we identified ourselves as with The Heritage Foundation.
“You’re against everything we stand for,” one said. Another said, “In case you don’t know, you work for an organization with a bad reputation.” Yet another said, “Stand there too long and you might not have your equipment.” When we asked if that meant he was threatening us, he said, “That means whatever you want it to mean.”
But others were eager to speak with us.
“That’s why we’re here — so our voices can be heard,” one teacher said, adding at the end of our interview that she hoped she and her two colleagues had made “friends” of us. When we passed her later, she called out, “Hi, friends!” and waved.
The day revealed the extent of the ideological divide that seems to characterize this debate — and the lack of consensus about the underlying facts that necessitate it in the first place.
Few protesters we spoke to knew Wisconsin has a deficit of $137 million — a deficit projected to increase to $3.6 billion in the next two years. Fewer still seemed to realize just how generous public worker benefits in Wisconsin are — far more generous than the national average.
Dispute also existed as to whether union membership is currently optional for public workers in Wisconsin (it’s not), even though most protesters seemed to think it should be optional.
But the protests seem to have done even more than expose ideological fault lines and a lack of mutual understanding of the facts.
As one CNN commentator put it, the protests have revealed that “things get ugly when the money’s just not there” — and they may perhaps foreshadow more to come as states across the country face budget shortfalls.
In Wisconsin, the protests seem unlikely to end anytime soon, as the state Senate Democratic minority (whom protesters call the “Fab 14″) remain out-of-state and unwilling to vote on the issue.
Vukmir said their absence is an abdication of their constitutional responsibility, while protesters carried signs that said, “My senator serves me better in Illinois than my governor does in Wisconsin.”
Senate Democrats, protesters said, are not being childish — they’re ensuring the debate receives attention.