MADISON, Wis. (Reuters) - Wisconsin's Republican governor vowed Friday to press ahead with legislation to curb the union bargaining rights of public employees as part of a deficit-cutting plan even as protests against the measure swelled.
Speaking at a news conference on the fifth consecutive day of demonstrations against the proposal, Governor Scott Walker said the state is broke and cannot pay its bills unless the plan is approved.
"I told the voters what I would do to get Wisconsin working again," Walker said of his election in 2010. "We are going to do what it takes to get this budget on track."
Republicans have majorities in both the state Senate and the Assembly. In a bid to scuttle the proposal, Senate Democrats fled the state on Thursday and Friday to deprive the Senate of the needed quorum for a vote.
The lawmakers apparently left the state because they were concerned that they would be compelled to return to the Capitol by police if they stayed in Wisconsin.
Republicans have a quorum in the state Assembly but late on Friday they abruptly adjourned until Tuesday to allow Democrats to offer amendments.
Police estimated that 35,000 protesters converged on the Capitol grounds in Madison on Friday, with another 5,000 demonstrators packed inside the building itself, said Carla Vigue, a spokeswoman with the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
On Thursday, a crowd estimated at 30,000 people protested inside and outside the Capitol building.
The protests have so far been peaceful and police said there were no incidents or arrests on Friday.
But the potential for confrontation emerged when the conservative Tea Party movement, which supports deep budget cuts, announced that it would hold a rally supporting the Republicans at the Capitol on Saturday.
Drew Ryun, the president of American Majority Action, one of the conservative groups planning Saturday's demonstration, said organizers were "meeting fire with fire."
"We have buses coming in from all over the state," Ryun said. "We see this as the opening salvo of the 2012 election season. The Tea Party movement facing off against the unions. And we like the odds."
Wisconsin is the flashpoint for a national struggle over efforts to roll back pay and union rights of state and local government workers. If the majority Republicans in Wisconsin prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on powerful public employee unions.
The Milwaukee Public School system, which serves 85,000 students in the state's largest city, canceled all classes on Friday after nearly 630 unionized teachers called in sick.
"Every day the crowds are bigger," said Jay Heck, the executive of Common Cause Wisconsin, a non-partisan advocacy group based in Madison, said of the union protests.
President Barack Obama sided with the demonstrators on Thursday, calling the governor's proposal an "assault on unions." U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner criticized Obama and said he backed fellow Republican Walker.
Walker's administration puts the deficit for the remainder of the current fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.
Republicans want state workers to increase contributions to pensions to 5.8 percent of salary, and double contributions to health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent.
They also want to limit collective bargaining to the issue of wages, and cap increases to the rate of inflation, with a voter referendum needed for bigger increases.
Walker said the alternative is to layoff more than 10,000 workers.
Walker was to unveil his state budget proposal for the next two fiscal years on Feb. 22, but Friday his office said that speech would be put off until Mar. 1.
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession decimated their finances. Some states such as Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona and Ohio are relying mainly on cuts in spending to balance the books. Others such as Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes. (Additional reporting by Vicki Allen in Washington, Darren Hauck in Madison, John Rondy in Milwaukee and Andrew Stern, James Kelleher and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing By Greg McCune and Eric Beech)
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