BY DYLAN BROGAN
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan was at the Capitol Tuesday to see his old pal Speaker Robin Vos. Despite being political opponents, the two have been chummy since serving together in the Wisconsin Legislature. As Republicans prepared to fast track a series of bills aimed at consolidating GOP power over state government, Pocan and Vos chatted outside the Assembly chambers.
“It was a last attempt to try to make him think wiser,” Pocan tells Isthmus. “But he was set on getting whatever they could get done, passed, in the shortest time possible. He’s making a big mistake. I’ve been told karma is a bitch.”
Republican lawmakers pulled an all-nighter Wednesday, spending hours behind closed doors as they negotiated the final details of several extraordinary session bills. Early in the morning, they approved — with just one Republican dissenting — measures limiting powers of the governor and attorney general, offices that Democrats won in November.
UW-Madison political science professor Howard Schweber calls the GOP effort “nothing short of an assault on democracy.”
“I think the use of the word coup by protesters is not an exaggeration. The only thing beyond this I can think of is if the governor simply refused to vacate the office,” Schweber says. “Reshaping distribution of the branches of government to preserve as much power as possible for one political party, that’s one step removed from canceling elections.”
The GOP limited the governor’s authority over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which was created during the Walker administration (and which took the lead on the controversial $3.5-billion Foxconn deal). Any changes to the state’s Medicaid program — which recently began requiring participants to hold jobs or participate in work-training programs — now require legislative approval. Republicans also made it easier for the Legislature to block administrative rules imposed by the governor’s office. The Senate approved 82 last-minute Walker appointments — including two seats on the UW Board of Regents. Republicans also passed a $60-million tax cut that will primarily benefit high-income earners.
Lawmakers blocked the new attorney general from withdrawing from lawsuits without their approval. Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul campaigned on pulling Wisconsin out of a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Republicans also eliminated the Office of Solicitor General in the Department of Justice, which outgoing Attorney General Brad Schimel created in 2015 to defend some of the state’s more controversial laws — including voter ID requirements and restrictions on abortion rights — from legal challenges. The GOP held back on a measure that would have allowed lawmakers to side-step the attorney general completely and hire private attorneys to intervene on challenges to state law. Kaul vows to fight the changes in court.
Republicans also restricted early voting — which helped fuel a historic turnout in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane counties in November. A similar but more restrictive proposal was ruled unconstitutional in 2016. The bill that passed Wednesday permits early voting for only two weeks prior to an election. Republicans claim the restrictions make it fairer for smaller municipalities, which aren’t able to provide early voting.
“The desire here is to depress turnout in heavily minority areas of the state and heavily Democratic areas. That’s the only goal,” Schweber says. “If there was a concern that small municipalities don’t have an opportunity for early voting, the Legislature could allocate funds to make that possible rather than taking that privilege away.”
However, the GOP leaders scaled back the scope of many of their original proposals aimed at curbing the power of Governor-elect Tony Evers and Kaul, both Democrats, such as eliminating the governor’s ability to make rules to implement state law. They also dropped a proposal to change the 2020 presidential primary date, which was seen as an attempt to protect Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly from a high turnout election that year.
Democrats are still incensed.
Rep. Chris Taylor from Madison chastised her Republican colleagues for not accepting the results of the November midterms.
“You lose and you burn the house down,” Taylor said on the Assembly floor. “The problem is it’s not your house. It’s the people’s house.”
Rep. Katrina Shankland from Stevens Point called the extraordinary session an “illegitimate” session.
“If these bills were so necessary … you would have campaigned on it. You would have said the executive branch has too much power,” she told GOP lawmakers. “You are throwing an expensive temper tantrum.”
Walker has signaled support for the lame duck legislation. He was booed by protesters during brief remarks at the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree Tuesday afternoon. He dodged reporters after the event and did not comment on the impending actions of his GOP allies.
Despite ceding power to the governor’s office in previous sessions under Walker, Vos lamented the Legislature’s diminished role in state government and justified his proposals as ensuring equal power between lawmakers and the governor.
“We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive,” Vos said on the Assembly floor Tuesday night. “This is really about the institution. Because if we care about the first branch of government being the most representative, that’s what this really is.”
That rings hollow to Schweber.
“What’s corrupt is the idea that the powers of the governor should vary depending on their party. The Republican leadership has said this explicitly,” Schweber says. “The theory that’s being propounded is that the separation of powers within state government is actually a separation of parties — not branches of government.”
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Glenbeulah) — who served in the Legislature for 22 years before being elected to Congress — says Wisconsin has long been known to have one of the most powerful governors in the country.
“The optics aren’t great — I’ll give the Democrats that. But when Tommy Thompson was governor, people would bitch that he had too much power. But he was the governor! Even if Republicans had the courage to stand up to him, Tommy would have just vetoed it,” Grothman says. “The only time to do this stuff is during a lame duck. Because no governor, regardless of party, is ever going to give up power. I think the good government types should be applauding some of these bills.”
But Vos’ claims of the Legislature being the “most representative” branch of government doesn't fly with Democrats who argue that districts gerrymandered by Republicans are disenfranchising voters. Democrats won every statewide office on the ballot and received 190,000 more total votes for the combined Assembly seats. Nevertheless, Vos will return to the Capitol in 2019 with Republicans holding 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly, a nearly two-thirds majority.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle made a rare public appearance Tuesday to warn that some of the GOP proposals were an “unconstitutional violation of separation of powers.” Pocan says he’s been told Evers will “very likely” be mounting a legal challenge to some of the lame duck bills passed this week. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said his group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, may file a lawsuit. One Wisconsin Institute is considering challenging the new early voting restrictions.
Schweber says the only check on what Democrats describe as a “power grab” by GOP lawmakers is the Wisconsin constitution and that gives the Legislature broad authority.
“What the Republicans are doing casts into genuine doubt the Wisconsin system of government,” Schweber says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal. It is political sin.”