Late Friday afternoon, less than a month after a Democrat, Tony Evers, defeated Scott Walker, the incumbent Republican governor, Robin Vos, the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, followed through on his threat to strip the new governor of some of his power.
That day, an assembly committee released five bills that grant sweeping new authority to the Legislature at the expense of both Mr. Evers and Wisconsin's new attorney general, Josh Kaul, who also happens to be a Democrat. Drafted in secret, the legislation was rushed to the Joint Finance Committee on Monday for its only public hearing. Legislators and outraged citizens scrambled all weekend to parse more than forty serious changes to state law embedded in the 141 pages of text. The legislature is expected to vote on the bills on Tuesday and Mr. Walker has indicated an openness to signing legislation of this stripe.
No one is really bothering to hide the purpose of this lame duck legislation: to continue the Republicans' hold on state government, even at the expense of core democratic principles like respect for the separation of powers and majority rule. The legislation would nullify the decision-making of Wisconsin's voters, who rejected Republicans for every statewide office in the November midterms.
The lame duck legislation would, for example, prevent Mr. Evers from fulfilling a campaign promise to take Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. It will also diminish the governor's control over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a scandal-ridden public-private agency created by Mr. Walker to foster job creation, by giving the legislature an equal number of appointees to the board as the governor and revoking the governor's power to appoint the board's chief executive.Mr. Evers campaigned on closing the agency, the subject of critical audits by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, which revealed that the economic development corporation had mismanaged millions of dollars in loans. The agency also attracted controversy after leading the effort to entice Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics manufacturing contractor, to build its first American plant in Wisconsin, at a cost to taxpayers now reaching more than $4.5 billion dollars in subsidies.
The lame duck legislation will also weaken the attorney general's office by eliminating the solicitor general's office in the state's Department of Justice. And it will take away the attorney general's power to determine how to spend settlement winnings and give that power to the Legislature. The bill also gives the Legislature the right to effectively act as its own attorney general by granting the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization the power to hire its own special counsel if it determines it is in the "interests of the state" to do so. (Both Mr. Vos and Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, who is collaborating closely with Mr. Vos, are members of the committee.)
Apart from stripping powers from other branches of government, the legislation aims to decrease voter turnout by imposing a two-week limit on early voting, despite the fact that a federal judge struck down a similar Wisconsin law in 2016 on the ground that it was racially discriminatory. When Democrats swept statewide offices in November, it was mostly the result of record turnout in Dane and Milwaukee counties, Wisconsin's two largest, both of which allow early voting to begin roughly six weeks before an election.
"The legislature is the most representative branch in government," Mr. Vos and Mr. Fitzgerald wrote in a joint statement after the bills were released. It was meant to serve as a justification, but in Wisconsin, at least since 2011, that has not been true: That year, at a law office across the street from the state capitol, Republicans drew new redistricting maps, in secret and without input from a single Democrat or member of the public. In 2016, a federal court ruled the maps so excessively partisan as to be unconstitutional, the first time a court had made such a ruling on partisan grounds in thirty years. (Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts, ruling that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.)
Nationally, Democrats won more than 300 state legislative seats in November, but the party gained only one seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly despite winning 54 percent of the aggregate statewide vote. That leaves Democrats with 36 out of 99 seats. (Since the 2011 redistricting, they have not held more than 39 of 99 seats.) In the State Senate, Democrats actually lost a seat, giving Republicans a 19-14 margin.
The lame duck legislation also takes aim at lowering turnout for a State Supreme Court election scheduled for April 2020. One measure would move the primary to March in order to avoid its being held on the same day as what is likely to be a crucial Democratic presidential primary. The cost of adding this new election is nearly seven million dollars, and the proposed date would make for three elections in three consecutive months.
Last week, Dane County's clerk announced on social media that 60 of the state's 72 county clerks opposed the move. Mr. Fitzgerald admitted to reporters that the rationale for moving the election was to give a "better chance" to Daniel Kelly, whom Mr. Walker appointed to fill a vacant seat. Judge Kelly's election to a full ten-year term is essential to preserving the 4-3 conservative advantage on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Like many Republican policies adopted in Wisconsin over the past eight years, taking power from a Democratic executive is part of a national conservative strategy. In December 2016, a few weeks after the election of Democratic governor Roy Cooper in North Carolina, Republican legislative leaders significantly weakened the state's governorship. They went so far that at the beginning of this year's legislative session, a reporter asked Phil Berger, the Republican Senate President Pro Tempore, and Tim Moore, the speaker of the House, if they planned to take away any more of Governor Cooper's powers. "Does he still have any?" Mr. Berger joked. "If you have any suggestions, let us know," Mr. Moore added.In Michigan, where Democrats also won the governor's and attorney general's offices last month, the Republican-controlled legislature is debating divesting powers from both offices, including the attorney general's oversight of state campaign finance law.
Perhaps fortified by the Republicans' gerrymandered advantage, Mr. Vos has been notably defiant. "There's no doubt about it that the voters across Wisconsin affirmed our record, the record of our party, and the agenda that we have put forward over the past eight years," he told the Assembly Republican Caucus a few days after the election despite Republicans losing all the statewide offices. "We are the ones that were given a mandate to govern."
I spoke to Mr. Evers last Friday, just before the bills were released. "I also have a mandate to govern," Mr. Evers told me, in response to Mr. Vos's comments. "But we have to work together and solve things for the people of Wisconsin. What Speaker Vos says in caucus, I understand that: he has to rally his troops."
But after learning about the scope of the bills, Mr. Evers was more assertive. "I view this as a repudiation of the last election," he told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I will take any steps possible to assure the people of Wisconsin that I will not invalidate those votes. And frankly, I'm encouraging citizens across the state of Wisconsin to help me in that effort."Mr. Vos and Mr. Fitzgerald seem confident they can turn their self-proclaimed mandate into another chapter in their party's most enduring achievement: engineering its own dominance. Like their successful efforts to gut Wisconsin's campaign finance laws, decimate the labor movement and weaken voting rights by enacting one of the country's strictest voter ID laws, seizing powers from the state's newly elected governor and attorney general promises to further tilt the balance in the Republicans' favor.
After eight years of relentless attacks on Wisconsin's progressive political traditions, its state government has been transformed into something that is hard to recognize as a democracy. If these new bills pass, it will become harder still.
By Dan Kaufman New York Times, Dec. 3, 2018.
Dec. 5, 2018
Post Script."The lame duck, heavily gerrymandered Republican Legislature plans to vote on Tuesday to limit the powers of the incoming governor and attorney general, who are — surprise — Democrats."
The Republican Party - an outrage against Democracy. A would-be Dictator. Gerrymandering. Now this. Spread the word far and wide and call the RNC.202-863-8500 and any GOP elected officials you have. Warn them. #WeWatchMI #WeWatchWI #WeWillRememberin2020