Wisconsin Governor Defies Court Order to Open Capitol

Madison – In a dramatic turn of events at the Wisconsin State Capitol today, Governor Scott Walker defied a court order to open the Capitol for normal business operations. State legislator, Representative Marc Pocan, called the move "not only unprecedented, but contempt of court as well."

On Monday at 8:00 a.m., the Wisconsin Capitol building, which was the site of dozens of major protests in the last two weeks including one of over 100,00 on Sunday, was virtually locked down as the Governor moved to limit protester access in advance of his scheduled budget address on Tuesday.

After untold numbers of people were turned away at the door Monday and told they could not speak to their legislators, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney pulled his deputies from the Capitol saying it was not their job to act as "palace guard." Wisconsin has some of the strongest open meetings and open government laws in the nation, and the local sheriff's department had played a key role in allowing protesters to exercise their legal rights in a public space, while keeping the protests inside and outside the Capitol safe and incident-free.

On Tuesday morning, it became clear that nothing had changed. Former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager petitioned the Dane County Court to open the Capitol. That petition was heard early on Tuesday, and a temporary restraining order granting the request was issued promptly at 9:30 a.m.

The order said that the respondent, Walker's Department of Administration, "Shall open the Wisconsin Capitol to members of the public during business hours and at times when governmental matters, such as hearings, listening sessions and court arguments are being conducted." The Capitol had dozens of hearings scheduled Monday and Tuesday. It has long been state law to allow unfettered access to the Capitol building when legislative business was underway. Now citizens are faced with a barrage of new rules. They could see their legislator in some instances, if they called ahead and were escorted by an aide. (Some Republican legislators could not be bothered to ferry their constituents into the Capitol building.) They could attend a committee hearing if they called the Sergeant at Arms to register in advance. All people entering the Capitol are wanded. "Even after 9-11 we never did any of this stuff," one protester in the crowd said.

By 10:30 a.m., a crowd of about 500 had gathered outside the Capitol seeking to be let in, but were blocked by a coalition of police from around the state. The diverse crowd of protesters included a contingent from the Jackson Correctional Center in Black River Falls, a group of Janesville firefighters and representatives of the Menominee Indian tribe from Northern Wisconsin.

Someone grabbed a megaphone and read the court order, prompting emphatic cries of "Let Us In!" and "Whose house? Our house!" But as the day wore on and no additional access was granted, tensions were high and many were left dumbfounded and disbelieving. The state Department of Administration issued a statement late in the day, stating that the limited access measures they had in place were compliant with the court order.

The whole matter ended up back in court at 2:15 p.m. Hoping for a quick resolution that would allow the Capitol to open for the Governor's budget address, the burgeoning crowds were disappointed when the court hearing wore on and on and was eventually extended into the next day. In the mean time, well-dressed supporters of the Governor were granted tickets and escorted inside. Various lobbyists were seen entering and exiting the Capitol including the lobbyist for alcohol and tobacco interests in the state.

"You expect this kind of thing in Alabama, not Wisconsin," said one person at the barred door, referring to the Governor George Wallace's attempted to deny black students their civil right to an education in 1963.

When the Governor's budget was unveiled at 4:00 p.m., it became quite clear why the Governor feared his constituents. No Wisconsinite will be unaffected by the bill. He cuts funding for schools and local governments by $1 billion, Medicaid and Badger Care by $500 million, ends state aid for recycling, expands school choice, gets rid of phosphorus rules that keep lakes and rivers clean, and cuts programs for poor college-bound students. He hands out $82 million in corporate tax breaks -- on top of the $100 million already approved -- while at the same time he takes away $42 million in tax credits for the poorest Wisconsinites. A crowd now registering many thousands made a ruckus outside that could be heard faintly inside the Assembly Chamber. The few protesters who managed to make it into the chamber were escorted out after one let loose a single "boo."

All this on top of his "budget repair bill," which guts collective bargaining for state workers -- a 50-year tradition in Wisconsin. "What we're seeing is a hostile corporate takeover of Wisconsin," State Senator John Erpenbach, one of the Wisconsin 14 currently visiting the great state of Illinois. Plus, the budget will result in the "absolute annihilation" of public education, according to state Rep. Tamara Grigsby.

Tomorrow a new day will dawn on Walker's Wisconsin. Already voters are expressing buyer's remorse. A new poll says if the election were held again today, Wisconsinites would elect Walker's opponent 52-45. If Walker keeps this up, Badger State voters may have a chance to do so in a recall election next year.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


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