updated 12/14/18 2:06 PM
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker just signed lame-duck legislation that takes away power from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, and hands more authority to Wisconsin’s Republican legislature. Just one day ago, Walker used some of the powers he has taken from incoming governor Tony Evers to reach a deal giving the Kimberly-Clark corporation a $25 million taxpayer-financed subsidy.
The last-minute Kimberly-Clark deal is part of an effort to save 300 jobs at one of two Wisconsin plants the company planned to close.Walker was not able to get enough votes in the state legislature for a larger, $70 million deal which, he said, was the purpose of the recently concluded lame-duck legislative session.
Instead, Wisconsin’s Republican legislature made national headlines by ramming through a series of lame-duck measures that seize power from the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.
There are all kinds of bad things in the Wisconsin Republicans’ just-passed power-grab legislation.
Take the scandal-plagued Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), which Walker created and Evers promised to eliminate during the campaign. Walker arranged the Kimberly-Clark deal through WEDC, using his power as governor to create “enterprise zones”—a power that will be stripped from incoming governor Evers.
The new law takes away the new governor’s power to appoint the head of WEDC and stacks the agency’s board with Republican appointees. So the agency will continue to exist, and will remain in Republican hands.
Walker has downplayed the lame-duck bills’ significance, even as national news headlines warn that they represent a dangerous GOP power-grab and an authoritarian move to nullify the results of the 2018 elections.
The laws shift power away from the governor and attorney general into the hands of the Republican legislature, limit access to the polls, and give a big tax cut to corporations and high-earners. They could also throw the state into chaos.
In Senate Bill 884, for example, the Republican legislature gives itself new powers to tie up agency appointments, potentially leaving key government agencies headless.
The state senate, in its “advice and consent” role, confirms the governor’s picks to lead state agencies. But the power-grabbing legislature wants to go further, seizing more control over who can run key agencies and how they do their business.
In an analysis of the bill, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau explains that, under the legislature’s new rules, the governor cannot nominate anyone twice to lead an agency.
In an analysis of the bill, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau explains that, under the legislature’s new rules, the governor cannot nominate anyone twice to lead an agency. And, once they are rejected by the senate, the governor’s picks will be forbidden to “perform any duties of the office or position during the legislative session biennium.”
Up until now, a rejected nominee could be re-nominated, or could be appointed to serve in a provisional capacity. The new law could lead to headless agencies, as rejected nominees are forbidden from doing agency work, and the Republican legislature holds out for Republican nominees.
Justifying the legislature’s moves, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said, “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” Among the policies Vos has spoken out against is Tony Evers’s campaign promise to restore $1.4 billion in funding Walker and the legislature cut from schools.
“They think it’s their role to try to overrule what the voters said in the 2018 election,” incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul told reporters during a press conference after the bills were released, adding, “They’re wrong about that.”
Kaul ran and won on a promise to withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Now the legislature is grabbing authority to decide whether the state participates in any federal lawsuits.
In other provisions that seize power from the attorney general, the legislature has allowed itself to hire its own private attorneys to argue cases usually handled by the attorney general’s office, and has mandated that every settlement case come before the Joint Finance Committee. This will greatly slow down the function of the Department of Justice, as each of the hundreds of state cases on environmental protection, consumer protection and other matters must be taken up, one by one, by the committee.
Governor Walker has endorsed the legislature taking control of state litigation—and seizing settlement money—calling that measure and the whole package of power-grab bills a victory for “transparency.”
“Scott Walker is yapping on social media about ‘transparency’ so he’s going to have to tell the people of Wisconsin how restricting their right to vote is creating more transparency,” Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, told The Progressive. One Wisconsin Now was the lead plaintiff in a 2016 federal case that put on hold a Republican plan to limit early voting in the last election. Massive early voting in Madison and Milwaukee and other areas of the state led to presidential-level turnout, and helped Democrats win every statewide race.
“They think it’s their role to try to overrule what the voters said in the 2018 election. They’re wrong about that.”
One of the Republican lame-duck bills imposes a two-week limit on early voting, which legislators have justified by saying early voting in big cities is unfair to voters in rural areas, where there aren’t as many poll workers.
“There is nothing that prevents any municipality in Wisconsin from having early vote available as long as every other municipality,” Ross says. “Scott Walker and Robin Vos want to create longer lines at polling places so that voters go home instead of voting. In our 2016 case, the federal judge said the attacks on voting were racially motivated by the Republicans and Vos and Walker are thumbing their noses at his order.”
In fact, the Wisconsin Republicans are quite upfront about their views on Democratic voters. Vos told reporters: “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” (Even after the legislature’s lame duck session, the map of Wisconsin still includes the state’s two largest cities.)
One Wisconsin Now is already preparing for a new round of litigation, as are state Democrats.
The Democrats’ strategy, up until now was to appeal to Scott Walker’s sense of decency, and urge him to consider his legacy and veto the bills. But after a phone call with Walker, Evers said he was “not particularly encouraged” by Walker’s response. Meanwhile, both sides are talking to lawyers about the coming fight.
“This is going to lead to litigation and that’s going to affect the ability of the state government to operate in 2019,” says Kaul. A bill that provides for state legislators to hire teams of private attorneys will be a massive waste of taxpayer money, he adds.
Walker’s legacy will be making Wisconsin into a laboratory for destroying democracy.
Like the union-busting legislation Walker proposed shortly after taking office in 2011, Wisconsin’s lame-duck power grab is part of a national strategy supported by large corporations and rightwing billionaires.
In Michigan, Republican legislators are pushing through similar lame-duck bills to disempower the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general, protect minority rule, and to limit voters’ rights. A bill passed on December 12 by the Michigan house of representatives limits citizens’ ability to gather signatures for ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments, in what critics call an unconstitutional effort to block these efforts.
The battle for democracy will not end when Walker leaves office in January.
“The attack on voters and the separation of powers by Scott Walker is going to be an anchor for the lawyer who taught him how to pull this off,” Ross predicts. Brian Hagedorn, Walker’s former lawyer, who helped craft Wisconsin’s union-busting “budget repair bill” is now running for state Supreme Court against Judge Lisa Neubauer of Racine, an experienced judge who has the support of state Democrats.
Republicans may lose control of both the executive and judicial branches in Wisconsin. And the heavily gerrymandered legislature will have to draw new maps after 2020, under a Democratic governor with veto power.
Eventually, even the brazen power grabbers in the Midwest will have to contend with the will of the people.