- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2011

MADISON | Wisconsin’s Senate Republicans voted Thursday to find their AWOL Democratic colleagues guilty of contempt and disorderly conduct, and order police to bring them back to work by force, if the missing senators did not return by late afternoon.

The 14 Democratic senators escaped to Illinois two weeks ago to avoid voting on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to take away nearly all collective bargaining rights from most state workers. Their absence has blocked passage of the bill because at least one of them must be present to have a quorum.

The state constitution doesn’t allow for senators to be arrested simply for not showing up. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the resolution passed Thursday morning allows police to take the Democrats into custody under Senate rules, not criminal or civil law, and only if they are in Wisconsin.

“I do believe senators are in Wisconsin,” he said. “I know they are driving back and forth to their homes.”

Senate Democrats disagreed with Mr. Fitzgerald about what’s allowed under the chamber’s rules. Sen. Chris Larson said they hadn’t done anything illegal and couldn’t be arrested.

“All fourteen of us remain in Illinois, very strong in our convictions,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a statement. “Issuing arrest warrants at 4 p.m. isn’t going to solve the problem.”

The resolution says the Democrats would be found guilty of contempt and disorderly conduct if they don’t return by 4 p.m., after which the Senate would issue an order similar to an arrest warrant. The order would give the chamber’s sergeant at arms the power to take any necessary steps, including police assistance, to bring the senators back.

Punishments for fleeing legislatures also were imposed Thursday in nearby Indiana, where most House Democrats have fled to Illinois for the past 10 days to deny legislative quorums to education and labor bills they oppose.

Indiana’s House Republicans approved $250-a-day fines against legislators who boycott the Statehouse, starting Monday, though House Speaker Brian Bosma said he will hold off on formally censuring them as he had discussed earlier.

Meanwhile on Thursday, Mr. Walker told the Associated Press in an interview that he will start issuing layoff notices to state workers on Friday if his bill calling for them to pay more for their benefits and taking away collective bargaining rights isn’t passed by then.

He told AP that layoffs have to start this week so the state can achieve savings he envisioned under the bill starting in April. The layoffs wouldn’t take effect for 31 days and they could be revoked later.

He says he won’t concede on the collective bargaining issue, but he may on others.

Mr. Fitzgerald called on any Wisconsin citizens who see the senators to contact police. He argued the resolution is about restoring order to the Senate and not the issues surrounding the union bill, which has led to three weeks of demonstrations by tens of thousands of protesters.

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, a union representing 11,000 law enforcement officials from across the state, released a statement from its director Jim Palmer slamming the action.

“The thought of using law enforcement officers to exercise force in order to achieve a political objective is insanely wrong and Wisconsin sorely needs reasonable solutions and not potentially dangerous political theatrics,” Mr. Palmer said.

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