MILWAUKEE — If you thought political nastiness was confined to Washington, D.C., visit Wisconsin this summer.

The ugly politics that led Democratic state senators to flee to Illinois to try to prevent passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation is making fewer national headlines this summer, but the fight continues. And it is as nasty as the polarized disaster in Washington.

The ugly situation in Wisconsin has some similarities — and some greater differences — with Maine.

Both states have new Republican governors. Republicans control both Legislatures.

Both governors demanded that state employees contribute more for pensions and health insurance. While both governors want greater limits on state employee unions, Walker’s approach seems more extreme than Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s.

The greatest differences stem more from the legislative leaders than from the governors’ offices.


In Wisconsin’s capital of Madison, most Republican legislators embraced Walker’s plans. There was little effort to temper the governor’s proposals or to negotiate compromises with Democrats.

In Maine, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee approached the budget — including pension and health insurance issues — as a bipartisan issue. The committee’s co-chairmen, Sen. Richard Rosen and Rep. Pat Flood, worked hard, and the budget easily passed the full Legislature and was signed by LePage.

No one likes everything in the budget — that’s the nature of compromise — but everyone involved worked to find an acceptable solution to difficult fiscal issues.

The success in Augusta is a sharp contrast to the disaster in Madison.

In February, Wisconsin Gov. Walker proposed legislation that would greatly restrict the bargaining rights of public employee unions and required state employees to contribute more of their pay toward pensions and health insurance.

But the proposals that brought the greatest protests limited the bargaining rights of state employee unions to negotiations of base salaries — and nothing else.


Moreover, salary increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index unless approved by referendum.

The proposal also required state employees to vote every year to maintain certification as a union. The state would stop collecting union dues, leaving that task to the unions.

Employees of the University of Wisconsin system would lose the right to be in unions.

Walker’s plan brought thousands to the Wisconsin Capitol to protest, dwarfing the union protests in Augusta.

It passed in the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a 60-38 majority. (There is one independent.) In the state Senate, 20 votes are required for a quorum for votes on budget matters, and the body has 19 Republicans. To prevent a quorum, the 14 Democratic senators all went to Illinois.

After nearly a month, Republicans revised the bill to remove some budget language — a step they said eliminated the need for a 20-vote quorum — and passed the bill.


The Democratic senators returned to Madison and filed lawsuits to try to overturn the new laws. Thus far, the suits have not succeeded.

Democrats circulated petitions to recall enough Republican senators to change control of the Senate. Republicans countered with petitions to recall several Democratic Senators for fleeing to Illinois.

The state eventually certified six recall petitions filed against Republicans and three against Democratic senators. Democrats need to gain three seats to take control of the Senate; Republicans need a gain of one seat for a quorum-proof supermajority.

One of the recall elections was held in July; the incumbent Democrat kept his seat. The others will be this month.

State Senate campaigns in Maine and Wisconsin seldom draw national attention or money, but outside groups have turned Wisconsin into a battleground.

Wisconsin Public Radio station WUWM said political scientists predict that more than $20 million may be spent on these Senate races.


The money comes from both sides of the political spectrum, from labor unions to conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, which has spent more than $400,000 to support just one Republican senator, Alberta Darling.

As of July 6, Darling reported receiving contributions of nearly $1 million. Her opponent, state Rep. Sandy Patch, had raised about $430,000.

Maine Clean Elections Fund candidates received about $20,000 each last year.

The campaigns, with costly TV ads, are nasty, filled with accusations, smears and name calling — the kind of campaigning that Mainers dislike the most.

Observers say most of the races are too close to call. No matter who wins, though, things will remain unpleasant in Madison.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. Email [email protected]

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