Protesters watch a live feed of a Wisconsin Assembly session as members vote on controversial bargaining rights legislation Feb. 24, 2011. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo
MADISON, Wis., Feb. 25 (UPI) -- A controversial bill that would erase most of public unions' collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin was approved Friday in the state's Assembly.
The 51-17 vote came just after 1 a.m., following 61 hours of debate, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Twenty-eight lawmakers -- 25 Democrats, two Republicans and one independent -- did not vote on the bill.
Democrats showed their anger at the bill before the final vote, denouncing a move to end debate and questioning whether proper procedure had been followed, the newspaper said. Democrats said they had 15 speakers remaining when debate was cut off.
"Shame! Shame! Shame!" Democrats shouted as Republican lawmakers left the lower chamber.
Republicans offered no comment and some had police protection when they left. Protesters were at the Capitol for more than a week to demonstrate against the bill.
The measure would give the Gov. Scott Walker's administration broad powers to reshape health programs covering low-income Wisconsin residents, and to use borrowing and cuts to employee benefits to plug a $137 million gap in the biennial state budget that ends June 30.
Walker and the Republican-led Senate have only a few days to pass the bill and sign it into law before a key refinancing provision would be lost. The refinancing of state debt that would free up $165 million must be completed by early next week or it will fall through and Republicans would have to find other cuts to balance the budget.
Senate Democrats have fled the state to prevent the chamber from acting on the bill.
During a news conference Thursday, Walker said the bill needed to be passed quickly to prevent local governments from enacting labor contracts containing increased health and pension contributions for workers. Failure to enact the legislation could mean up to 12,000 state and local employees being laid off, he said.
"I'd do almost anything to avoid laying people off," Walker said. "We need to avoid those layoffs for the good of the workers, the good of the people."
Lawmakers also approved a rule to allow Capitol police to close the statehouse at 6 p.m., requiring demonstrators inside the building to take their protests outside after normal business hours end, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison reported. The statehouse now must remain open to the public as long as lawmakers are in session or a public hearing is being conducted. Otherwise it usually closes by 6 p.m.
Demonstrators have been allowed in the building during their marathon protests of Walker's bill.
Walker hasn't indicated whether he will ask Capitol police to enforce the rule. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said Thursday the governor hadn't made a final decision.