MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans are charging ahead with lame-duck legislation that would limit the authority of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, with votes set for late Tuesday despite a public outcry and a wave of protests at the State Capitol.
By Tuesday evening, the Wisconsin Senate had passed the least controversial of the three lame-duck bills, a measure on taxes and transportation that was approved by the GOP-controlled chamber on a party-line vote.
Legislators were meeting behind closed doors after Tuesday’s initial vote, and it was unclear when they might take up the remaining two parts of the package.
Among the more hotly debated parts of the plan are provisions that would limit early voting, which has helped Democrats, and restrict the ability of Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) to make appointments. The plan also would take away from the governor the power to withdraw the state from a lawsuit, allowing lawmakers to make that decision instead. That proposal, critics say, is aimed at ensuring that Wisconsin remains part of a multi-state Republican challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) defended the plan, listing a series of GOP legislative victories and vowing that lawmakers were not intent on “having somebody come in with the stroke of a pen again and getting rid of those ideas.”
“We did have an election,” Vos said. “Whether everyone here likes it or not, I respect the fact that Tony Evers is the governor, and he’s going to be starting on January 7th. But he’s not the governor today. And that’s why we’re going to make sure that the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be.”
Opponents of the plan, meanwhile, continued to demonstrate at the State Capitol, including at a Christmas-tree lighting presided over by Gov. Scott Walker (R).
A similar lame-duck effort is underway by GOP lawmakers in Michigan, where three Democrats — Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel and Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson — are set to take office in January.
The moves in Wisconsin and Michigan have drawn comparisons to Republican efforts in North Carolina in 2016, when lawmakers pushed through legislation limiting the authority of the state’s Democratic governor-elect, triggering a legal battle that resulted in a loss for the Republicans.
Walker previously opposed efforts by Democrats to approve public-employee union contracts during the legislature’s 2010 lame-duck session. But in a tweet Tuesday afternoon, he suggested that the current moves by Republicans were different from that Democratic effort because the contracts would have had a longer-lasting impact.
“During the special session in 2010, lawmakers considered contracts that couldn’t be changed for years,” wrote Walker, who took office in 2011. “The things being discussed in the 2018 extraordinary session are things that can be changed by the new Governor and Legislature.”
Late Monday, a committee abandoned a proposal that would have moved Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary election to March, a shift that probably would have boosted the chances of conservative judges by lessening the turnout for the April 2020 state Supreme Court election. The state’s election commission had projected that the move would have been “extraordinarily difficult” to make and would have cost more than $6 million.
But the other provisions received the green light from the committee, after an hours-long public comment session in which one speaker after another sharply criticized the GOP-crafted plan as an attempt to overturn the results of the November elections.
The debate over the current lame-duck efforts prompted Jim Doyle, Wisconsin’s former two-term governor and three-term attorney general, to jump back into the political fray Tuesday. At a news conference in Madison, he called the moves a nakedly partisan power grab that will ultimately be defeated in the courts.
“They’re willing to throw away a great deal of history with very little thought,” said Doyle, a Madison lawyer and Democrat who immediately preceded Walker.
Doyle predicted that, even if the measures survive and are signed by Walker, they will eventually be struck down in the courts on constitutional separation-of-powers grounds. But the message they send will linger, he said, describing the GOP-led effort as anti-democratic and contrary to Wisconsin’s generally cooperative spirit.
Doyle also noted the historic moment, with eulogies pouring in for former president George H.W. Bush, who famously left a handwritten welcome-to-the-White House note for his successor, Bill Clinton. It was hard not to be struck by the contrast, Doyle said, arguing that “the Wisconsin legislature is sinking to new depths.”
Doyle’s rare news conference preceded the day’s only public appearance by Walker. The governor sat in the stately capitol at an annual tree-lighting event. As a choir sang carols next to the bejeweled tree, protesters gathered in the circular balconies, in clear view of Walker.
“All I want for Christmas is democracy,” read one woman’s sign. “Go the hell home, Walker!” screamed a man from the third floor. Occasionally, the carols were drowned out by a group of nearby protesters calling themselves the Solidarity Singers. “We Shall Overcome” and “Solidarity Forever” echoed through the marble halls.
Walker, who has signaled that he is willing to sign the bills being debated by the legislature, declined to take press questions after the event.
Sonmez reported from Washington.