Clarissa Sanchez, a freshman in high school from Racine, Wisconsin, knew the state legislature's Joint Committee on Finance's majority vote was not likely to shift in her favor. But that didn't stop her from boarding a bus with fellow members of Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES!), the youth branch of Milwaukee-based immigrants rights group Voces de la Frontera, and traveling to the Capitol for the committee's June 2 meeting, during which it was expected to vote to repeal the 2009 measure granting in-state tuition rights (for the University of Wisconsin system and state tech schools) for the children of undocumented immigrants who grew up in Wisconsin.
"That's just taking our dream away," Sanchez said. "They want us to be successful, but how can we be successful when we can't go to college?" Sanchez added that she, along with many of her friends, would be adversely affected by the decision, and many people she knew would not be able to afford college.
The group waited, many dressed in caps and gowns adorned with signs that read, "What now?" When the 1 p.m. meeting was pushed back to 5 p.m., the students from Racine had to start their return trip before even catching a glimpse of the committee.
"We're not going to give up," said Mario Lopez, a Milwaukee member of the group, adding, "I guarantee you, if we didn't have to work as hard as we do, being part of the working class, I'm sure we'd have this thing [the committee meeting] full."
As the group prepared to leave, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) entered the committee chambers and apologized for the committee's lateness. Taylor was the only committee member to address the crowd waiting in the chambers throughout the afternoon.
"More than anything, continue to be a part of democracy and to make sure that your voice is heard," Taylor said to the group. "And the pendulum? It swings back. I promise you."
As the Joint Finance Committee moves closer to final action on Governor Scott Walker's controversial budget, which takes $1 billion out of public education, while radically expanding school vouchers, more protests are expected in the Wisconsin Capitol.
Tensions within the room began to rise as the afternoon wore on with no sign of the Joint Finance Committee. Activist Miles Kristan was removed from the room, told by a Capitol Police officer that he was under arrest, but not informed of the activity that led to the arrest. This led to a scuffle in the hallway outside the Joint Finance Committee chambers, as Kristan's friends clamored for an answer from police. Kristan was later released and not charged with a crime, but the event markedly changed the environment in the room. Capitol Police officers outside the room declined to comment on the situation.
The police presence was significantly strengthened as the meeting began amid shouts and chants from protesters in the crowd. Lawmakers could barely hear each other, or themselves, over the volume of the protests.
Rep. Jen Shilling (D-La Crosse) tried to quiet the protesters, telling the crowd that in order for the committee to do its work, it needed decorum. This was met with shouts of, "We don't want you to do your work."
Sens. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) also urged the crowd to quiet down, arguing that the protests would not stop Republican lawmakers from moving forward with their agenda. Taylor urged some of the more agitated protesters to "take the high road."
As lawmakers pleaded with the crowd, four protesters approached the committee. Jesus Salas, former UW Regent; Larry Miller, director on the Milwaukee Public School Board; Al Levie, Racine high school teacher and REA union member; and Christine Neumann-Ortíz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, started reading from a prepared statement.
"We are here today to vehemently oppose this education budget and the process by which you have rammed this budget forward," the protesters read. "Holding four public hearings in remote areas during work and school hours is not democracy. Slashing funds for public education and removing the ability for undocumented students to pay instate tuition rates is mean spirited and immoral."
The group issued a statement describing the actions as "organized, non-violent civil disobedience." Salas, Miller, Levie and Neumann-Ortiz were the first protesters to be carried out of the chambers while reading the statement.
Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs told WisPolitics that 25-30 protesters were escorted out of the building for disrupting the committee, and that two were arrested out of that number. As people were removed from the meeting, the crowd chanted, "Shame!" and "Police state!" When legislators expressed concern that they could not hear the proceedings of the meeting, committee Co-Chairperson Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said they had "two options": to clear out the room or proceed despite the noise of the crowd.
A shared revenue omnibus motion was passed 11-4, to jeers from the crowd.
Cutting Local Aid, Promoting Privatization, Stripping Police and Fire of Collective Bargaining Rights for Health Care
"You're basically cutting off municipalities' arms and legs, instead of their heads," said Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee), who advised Republican lawmakers not to pat themselves on the backs for what were touted as improvements to the original proposal. According to WisPolitics, "The motion increases aid to county and municipalities by $19.3 million in 2012-13, leaving the program with a net reduction of $76.8 million. Of that, municipalities will receive a reduction in payments of $47.7 million and counties $29 million instead of the reductions of $59.5 million and $36.5 million that Walker proposed, respectively."
The committee moved on to the school choice omnibus, and access to the meeting room became severely restricted. Doors were closed, and people were only allowed to enter if someone from within the room left. A crowd gathered outside the doors singing songs that could be heard from the meeting such as, "We Shall Overcome," "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "Solidarity Forever."
Grigsby said the motion was "not about the poor little black kids in Milwaukee; it's about privatizing public education. It's about making money off the backs of poor children."
"We need to raise all boats, not sink boats to raise a few yachts," Jauch said of the motion, which favors resources for private schools by stripping Milwaukee public schools of $182 million.
Taylor and Grigsby expressed discontent with the fact that Republican lawmakers did not consult with the representatives from districts that included schools that would face cuts like Milwaukee.
Before the school choice motion was passed, several protesters left the room by choice, shouting their disapproval as they exited. "Hey Darling, pink looks good on you. You should get ready for your pink slip," said one man. Co-Chairperson Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) faces a recall election this summer.
The school choice omnibus passed 11-4, despite objections from Democrats.
"Republicans are not satisfied with strangling public education; they want to suffocate it," Jauch said, and a large group of protesters inside and outside the room exited the Capitol in solidarity, chanting, "Save public education!"
Several less controversial motions were passed relatively quickly as protests died down.
The final motion tackled the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. It eliminated the ability of police and fire employees to collectively bargain on the design and choice of a health insurance plan.
Grigsby expressed frustration, asking Republicans if they paid any attention to public sentiment regarding collective bargaining rights. "I would love to know how you're gonna justify it to the people when they wake up in the morning," Grigsby said, after raising questions about why motion wasn't addressed until nearly midnight, when most of the public had left the Capitol.
Vos argued that Democrats were like a "one-trick pony" searching for an "evil plot" from Republicans to eliminate collective bargaining. "That's not what this is," he said. The motion passed 11-4.
Vos adjourned the meeting and said the committee plans to reconvene at 1 p.m. Friday to address the rest of its work, which includes the UW system.