Wisconsin Republicans to vote on weakening governor’s power
MADISON — Just weeks away from losing control of both the governor and attorney general’s offices, Wisconsin Republicans planned dramatic lame-duck votes Tuesday on a sweeping attempt to limit the powers of incoming Democrats, a move that opponents decried as a last-gasp power grab and attempt to invalidate the election.
Another Republican proposal to move the 2020 presidential primary election from April to March appears to be dead. A Republican-controlled committee did not advance the plan Monday, and the panel’s co-chairs said it didn’t have enough votes to pass.
Both the Senate and Assembly delayed their planned starts of debate Tuesday, a sign that opponents took of potential disagreement over how to proceed. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos delayed a planned news conference but had no comment on any potential roadblocks.
Once approved by the Legislature, the other measures would head to Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his signature just five weeks before he is replaced by Democrat Tony Evers. Republicans maintained majority control of the state Legislature in the November election, and thanks to the rare lame-duck session, Walker has a chance to leave one final mark on the state after losing his bid for a third term last month.
Walker drew boos and howls of “Hey Walker! Go home!” as he presided over the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. Protesters lined the balcony and floor of the rotunda holding signs that read, “Stop the GOP Madness” and “GOP Grinch Steals Democracy.”
Walker pressed on, speaking over the boos and sitting through the entire ceremony. A high school choir singing Christmas songs was largely drowned out by protesters outside the Senate chamber singing their own anti-Walker tunes.
Walker left without taking questions.
The Wisconsin maneuvering is similar to what Republicans did in North Carolina two years ago and to what is being discussed in Michigan before a Democratic governor takes over there. The bills were moving quickly in Wisconsin, having just been made public late Friday afternoon.
They also sparked protests at the Capitol reminiscent of the raucous demonstrations that resulted when Walker all-but eliminated collective bargaining for public workers in 2011. Those protests were massive and lasted weeks. Assembly Democrats filibustered for 60 straight hours in a vain attempt to stop Walker’s changes, and the session ended only after Republicans abruptly called the question.
Republicans were poised Tuesday to complete their work much more quickly.
Democrats in the state Assembly pumped themselves up for a fight Tuesday morning, telling reporters Republicans were denying the will of the voters. Traditionally Democrats and Republicans agree on time limits for debate, but Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said there was no agreement reached this time because the lame-duck session is “illegitimate” and an “absolutely horrible day for Wisconsin.”
Members of the public testified against the measures at a sometimes-raucous hearing that ran deep into the night Monday. All but one person testified against the measures, and the bill’s sponsors, breaking with normal practice, did not appear or send surrogates to speak in support on their behalf.
“The people aren’t asking for this,” Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor said. “You did not run on this. You didn’t tell people you would do everything in your power to take away the power of a newly elected governor and attorney general. You rig the system when you win and you rig the system when you lose.”
Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the committee, downplayed the lame-duck proposals and said the goal was to establish balance in power between the Legislature and governor. Nygren said it was a positive step that would “bring us together to solve the problems of the state.”
Evers, incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and other opponents urged Republicans to reject the measures. Protesters flooded the Capitol on Monday, chanting “Shame!” and occasionally disrupted the public hearing and a news conference with Republican leaders.
Walker signaled support for the moves Monday, and his office has been working with Republicans on crafting the package. But Evers called the unusual lame-duck session “rancor and politics as usual.” The last lame-duck session in Wisconsin was in 2010 when Democrats tried unsuccessfully to enact labor agreements.
Republicans had proposed moving the date of the 2020 presidential primary to improve the chances of a conservative Supreme Court justice, who was appointed by Walker and is on the ballot that year. But election clerks objected, citing the $7 million cost and logistical challenge of holding a third election within a two-month period.
It didn’t even get a vote in the committee. Republican committee co-chairs said after the meeting that it didn’t have votes in the Senate to pass.
The remaining proposals would weaken the governor’s ability to put in place rules that enact laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control. Republicans also want to limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election.
Other measures would weaken the attorney general’s office by allowing Republican legislative leaders to intervene in cases and hire their own attorneys. A legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, would have to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. That would stop Evers and Kaul from fulfilling their campaign promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
They made opposition to that lawsuit a central part of both of their campaigns and handcuffing their ability to get Wisconsin out of the case has fueled Democratic arguments that Republicans are trying to invalidate the will of voters.
Opponents have said many of the changes would likely be challenged in court, a process that could create even more gridlock in state government next year.
“This legislation is an effort to undermine the results of the elections we just had for governor and for attorney general,” Kaul told reporters Tuesday. “The state is going to be mired in litigation in 2019.”