GOP legislatures seek to cement Republican power

Republican legislators in several states are moving to cement their authority at the expense of Democrats who won November's midterm elections — before those Democrats are sworn into office.

In Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina, lame-duck sessions of Republican-controlled state legislatures are working on measures that would alter the balance of power in the GOP's favor.

In Missouri, legislators are contemplating a plan that would weaken a voter-passed initiative that limits the value of gifts lawmakers can accept from lobbyists and implements a cooling-off period before retiring legislators can become lobbyists themselves.

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Critics say the efforts thwart the will of the voters, who handed Democrats new victories in all four states. Republicans are racing to implement the changes before they lose some or all of their power next year.

“It's anti-democratic, and anti-republican, and it basically blows up all the norms of what is supposed to be the core feature of a free political system, which is the peaceful and orderly transfer of power,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Just days after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) conceded defeat to Democrat Tony Evers, Republican legislative leaders in Madison said they would contemplate a plan to claw back authority the legislature had given the governor after Walker took office in 2011.

The legislature held a hearing on those measures, as well as a bill to weaken the authority of Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul (D), who also beat a Republican incumbent. Legislators also held hearings on a bill to limit early voting, something Walker supports but Evers opposes.

“We trusted Scott Walker and the administration to be able to manage the back and forth with the legislature,” state Senate President Scott Fitzgerald (R) told a conservative radio host on Monday. “We don't trust Tony Evers right now in a lot of these areas.”

Evers, who will be inaugurated next month, has blasted the plans as a naked grab for political power.

“It's embarrassing, to some extent, to the state of Wisconsin,” Evers told The Hill in a brief interview Saturday. “They're going to the heart of our democracy, and we're going to do everything we can to fight it.”

Protestors pounded on the room where a legislative committee heard testimony on the proposals, shouting “respect our votes.”

In Michigan, Republican lawmakers have advanced two proposals to limit the authority of the state attorney general. The state Senate is considering a bill to end the secretary of state’s oversight of campaign finance reporting.

Democrats won both offices in November's elections, but those winners will not be sworn in until next month. In a statement, Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson (D) called the proposal to strip power from her office “hyper-partisan.”

Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who spent eight years in office painting himself as a “tough nerd” above the fray of partisan politics, has not said whether he would sign any of the proposals.

“Snyder can stop this in Michigan,” Ornstein said. “If he doesn't stop it, he has proven through his entire record that he is nothing but a partisan hack.”

In North Carolina, voters passed a constitutional amendment last month that will require voters to show photo identification at the polls in future elections. Republicans are working to pass a measure that would establish the contours of that voter identification proposal before the new legislature arrives in Raleigh in January. 

Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers now, but they lost those super majorities in November's elections. Democratic legislators say the bill being moved through the legislature this week does not allow election workers to accept certain kinds of government-issued identification.

“What is concerning about the Voter ID requirements is the red tape and waste created,” state Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D) said on Twitter.

After a series of scandals in Jefferson City, 62 percent of Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that overhauls ethics rules that apply to the legislature, and changes the way the state's legislative districts are drawn.

Republicans maintain large majorities in the state legislature, but the redistricting reform could threaten their hold on power after the next round of maps are drawn.

The state Republican Party has donated $150,000 to a new outside group, dubbed Fair Missouri, to advocate for a new ballot measure that would undermine the redistricting overhaul voters approved. State House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R) said he would negotiate with African-American lawmakers who might see their numbers diminished under the new redistricting scheme.

Republicans in recent years have moved to change rules or alter ballot measures before they lose power. 

Two years ago, Republicans in North Carolina moved to strip the governor of some of his powers, especially with regard to the state Board of Elections and county elections boards, after Democrat Roy Cooper defeated incumbent Republican Pat McCrory.

Legislators in South Dakota voted to repeal a referendum, which passed by a wide margin in 2016, that implemented stricter ethics rules and curtailed the power of lobbyists.

Ornstein blamed Republicans, who he said have chosen attempts to diminish the influence of Democratic voters rather than to try to expand their own appeal to new voters.

“It's more the party of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin than the party of Lincoln. I find this just to be shocking. Not in the sense that I’m surprised,” Ornstein said. “This is truly a breach of fundamental norms of the political system.