MADISON - Lawmakers in Madison appear divided more than ever before the new year following an extraordinary push by the Republican-controlled Legislature to limit the authority of Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.
Regional elected representatives are split along party lines over the process which led to Republicans passing bills in the Assembly and Senate limiting the scope of early voting in Wisconsin; giving more power to legislative leaders in appointing board members to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation; and preventing the incoming governor and attorney general from removing the state from federal lawsuits, including a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, something that was a major campaign pledge by Evers ahead of the Nov. 6 election. The governor's powers regarding writing rules for existing laws will also be curtailed.
Republican-majority legislators worked in secret to craft the measures and fast-track the legislation, which was first introduced just last Friday. Committee and public hearings took place Monday, advancing the plan along party-line votes. The Senate deliberated through Tuesday night before voting early Wednesday morning amid public protests and pleas from Democratic lawmakers to stop the process. The Assembly quickly followed suit to send the measures to Gov. Scott Walker before he leaves office in January.
Republican lawmakers say the bills help redistribute the balance of state power among governing bodies. A similar effort by Democrats in a 2010 lame-duck session to pass labor contracts failed ahead of Scott Walker taking office.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and vice chair of the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC), conceded that the bill package passed Wednesday might not have "had something this comprehensive" come forward if Walker had won re-election.
"I disagree with the power grab narrative, and I hope this is seen as the Legislature asserting its right of being a co-equal branch of government," Loudenbeck said. "This is to make sure we are negotiating on an equal footing. That's why we did it."
When pressed on widespread criticism alleging the legislation was intended to maintain Republican control, Loudenbeck said the bills were passed "to make sure that we have everything in place and are stable going forward into 2019."
Asked about any public input she received, Loudenbeck said her office fielded about 200 calls, emails and text messages from voters in the 31st District about the package of bills, noting a handful were supportive of the changes. Loudenbeck said "starting on election night" she heard "from many people who are concerned that policies and reforms that have been lawfully enacted over the past eight years would be reversed," with the main issues of concern for voters being the state's voter identification changes made in 2015, changes to WEDC and issues surrounding health care waivers.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the lame-duck session was in line with gradual changes made since 2015 to reduce executive powers while boosting legislative oversight.
"I will work with the Governor-Elect on his ideas that our beneficial to the citizens of my district," Nass said. "However, I will also oppose any of his proposals that take Wisconsin in the wrong direction or attempt to reverse the reforms that have saved taxpayers over $5 billion since 2011. I understand and respect that Governor-Elect Evers will agree with some of our ideas and oppose other proposals. The key point of the bills we passed on Tuesday is to provide a statutory path for addressing these issues whether through legislation or the administrative rules process."
Critics of the hasty legislative push say the bills are part of a move to maintain Republican control in Madison as a Democratic administration assumes office.
On Wednesday, Evers said he wants to meet and personally ask Walker to veto the package of bills. Before the vote in Madison earlier this week, Walker said he would be open to the changes brought by the new legislation, but has yet to sign off on the bills.
"If I was on the losing end of an election that saw my party lose every statewide election this past November, I'd reexamine the positions I campaigned on since a majority of the people in Wisconsin thoroughly rejected them. Astonishingly, the Republicans' primary concern is to protect their own power. Instead of reevaluating the right wing ideology the voters rejected, they convened an unprecedented lame-duck session to pass bills limiting ability of the newly elected Governor and Attorney General to do their jobs and to stack state boards and commissions with hand-picked cronies," said Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville.
Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said this week's vote was "a blatant attempt to override and disrespect the will" of voters.
"Legislative Republicans need to stop putting politics before people and should work together with the incoming administration on the problems facing our state," Spreitzer said. "The people said loud and clear on Nov. 6th that it's time for a change. There are many things in these bills that are bad, but the central issue is that Republicans lost the only elections conducted outside of gerrymandered districts and are now trying to override the will of the people. We have checks and balances for a reason, and this attempted subversion of the voters shows why those checks and balances are more important than ever."
Early voting in the state will be restricted to begin no sooner than two weeks before an election, something opponents say targets major urban areas that are coming off record absentee voting figures. Loudenbeck said the changes to early voting do not infringe voting rights, but attempt to provide continuity to the state's absentee voting process. She speculated the voting changes would be legally challenged. Similar early voting restrictions were struck down in a 2016 ruling, and are still in the appeals process.
Related to the attorney general changes, Loudenbeck said the new requirements ensure the Legislature's involvement going forward.
"(Attorney General Josh Kaul) will still have the discretion to direct or not direct resources on any given case, but he can't withdraw without getting legislative approval," Loudenbeck said.
Evers had threatened to dissolve the WEDC and reorganize the state's economic development agency, and Loudenbeck said the legislation includes an effort to preserve the group, and show what she says is the group's inherent economic value to the incoming administration.
Evers has said all options are the table, including filing a lawsuit against the new legislation. The governor-to-be will be sworn in on Jan. 7 and mark the first split government in eight years.