MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans worked through the night to vote early Wednesday morning on lame-duck bills that would diminish the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.
Republicans say the changes are needed to preserve the powers of the Legislature.
Lawmakers in the state Senate Wednesday voted 17-16 to approve a sweeping set of measures that also narrowed the state’s window for early voting, among other changes.
There were a few high profile issues that did not get approved, such as tax incentives for Kimberly-Clark and moving the 2020 Wisconsin presidential primary.
State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, joined Democrats in opposing the wide-reaching bill, which cleared the chamber at about 6 a.m.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and Sen. Dave Craig, R-Vernon, voted in favor of the bill and state Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, voted against the bill. Craig and Wirch represent portions of Racine County.
The Assembly passed the bill on a 56-27 vote just before 8:30 a.m.
In the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, state Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Caledonia, state Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva (whose district includes part of the Town of Burlington), state Rep. Chuck Wichgers, R-Muskego (whose district also includes the Village and Town of Waterford) voted in favor of the bill; state Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, and state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, voted against it.
The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has signaled that he is likely to sign it. Once signed, the measures are “virtually certain to end up in litigation,” Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul told reporters Tuesday.
Democratic Governor-elect Evers has asked Walker to veto the bills passed during the lame-duck session.
The votes Wednesday came after hours of delays that kept lawmakers in the Capitol overnight as Republicans worked behind closed doors to strike agreements on the proposals.
The Senate was originally scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. Tuesday, with the Assembly following at 1 p.m. Both chambers met briefly at several points throughout the night, but did not return in earnest until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Democrats have sharply criticized the session saying Republicans are taking power from Evers before he takes office. However, Republicans say the session is a necessary change to shift more powers from the executive branch to the Legislature.
Vos, whose voice was nearly gone after hours of negotiations, said the legislation makes sure “that the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be.”
“The Legislature is the most representative branch of government and the closest to the people of Wisconsin,” Vos said. “Our proposals guarantee that the Legislature always has a seat the table. With divided government, these bills allow for more discussions and opportunities to find common ground.”
What is in the bills?
Under the legislation, the state could not withdraw from a lawsuit without legislative approval — a change that would prevent Evers and Kaul from upholding their campaign promises to remove Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
The legislation would also eliminate the solicitor general’s office. It would also allow lawmakers to hire private attorneys with tax dollars to intervene on their behalf if a state law is challenged in court, although the special counsel would not act in place of the attorney general as was proposed when the legislation was first introduced. In those cases, lawmakers would have final approval of settlements.
Under the proposals, legislators would have increased influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the WEDC board, not the governor, would appoint the job creation agency’s CEO. However, the governor’s power to appoint a CEO would be restored in September 2019.
The legislation would also prevent Evers from banning guns in the Capitol without legislative approval, and would limit the ability of Evers’ administration to implement the rules that dictate how state laws are enforced.
The bill also limits the time during which early voting may take place to two weeks before an election.
Wanggaard called criticism to the session “hysteria” and said these bills, “are not an assault on democracy or the powers of the governor and attorney general.”
Wanggaard said the bills “give the Legislature greater oversight.”
“If future governors seek to expand Medicaid with a cost of greater than $7.5 million, or otherwise increase spending in health care, he or she will have to seek permission from the Legislature just like he or she would with any other government program,” Wanggaard said. “As the Legislature has done in the last several years, we continued to restrain administrative rules by creating more accountability and ensuring that the Legislature is the law-making body, not the bureaucracy.”
Democrats respond to the vote
Neubauer said Republicans should respect the wishes of Wisconsin voters who chose to put Evers and Kaul into office.
“They voted for a government for the people, not eight more years of Republican partisan games,” Neubauer said. “My Republican colleagues have made it clear that they don’t care that the people of Wisconsin voted for a new governor. They are willing to change the rules when they lose, play politics for partisan gain, and undermine our democracy, instead of listening to their constituents.”
Barca, sarcastically, said the Legislature “made history last night.”
“For the first time in the history of our state, the Legislature is using a post-election, lame-duck legislative session to actively take authority from incoming, newly elected constitutional officers of the state,” Barca said. “We could have used this period to begin finding compromise and working together, but the Republican majority refused to let go of unified control without causing more discord and division.”
Wirch called the session a “desperate attempt by Republicans to hold on to power.”
“The voters of Wisconsin have spoken loud and clear that they support the agenda put forward by Tony Evers and Josh Kaul,” Wirch said. “It is absolutely shameful for Speaker Vos, Majority Leader (Scott) Fitzgerald and their members to bring us into a lame-duck session to take away their democratically-elected duties.”
The Senate failed to pass a health care bill that would cover pre-existing conditions with Republicans Craig and Chris Kapenga of Delafield joining Democrats in voting against the bill. The bill was previously passed in the Assembly.
During the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Tuesday, demonstrators booed Walker as a result of the legislative action taken by state Republicans.