Wisconsin’s Republican-led General Assembly on Wednesday passed a handful of measures meant to limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, amid loud protests over what Democrats called a lame-duck power grab.
After an all-night session, the state Senate narrowly passed a handful of bills limiting the power of incoming Gov. Tony Evers (D) and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul (D) and curtailing early voting. The state Assembly passed the same bills early Wednesday morning.
One measure would allow the state legislature to appoint members of the state Economic Development Corporation, who would then elect their own chairman. Current state law allows the governor to choose the board’s chairman.
Legislators also approved a measure that would allow them to hire their own lawyers to fight challenges to state laws. The incoming attorney general, Kaul, would have to win legislative approval before settling any suits.
And the legislature passed a bill to limit early voting to two weeks before Election Day. Early voting is far more popular in Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee and Madison than in other more rural, more conservative parts of the state.
Republicans cast the measures as a way to protect outgoing Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) legacy, including limits on public employee unions and work requirements for some of those who receive state services.
“Today’s extraordinary session codifies into law reforms that have been eight years in the making,” state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said in a statement Wednesday morning. “Law written by the legislature and passed by a governor should not be erased based on the political maneuvering of an incoming administration.”
Democrats, enraged that votes took place in the dead of night, castigated Republicans for taking up measures they said went counter to the wishes voters expressed in November’s midterm elections.
“It’s embarrassing, to some extent, to the state of Wisconsin,” Evers told The Hill in an interview this weekend.
Ostensibly, the extraordinary session was meant to pass a bill that would protect those with pre-existing conditions in case the Affordable Care Act was overturned, a key campaign promise Walker made on the trail this year. That bill failed in the state Senate on a bipartisan vote.
“The Republican-controlled legislature voted to subvert the will of the people,” state Sen. Chris Larson (D) said in a statement. “Never before in Wisconsin’s 170-year history has an extraordinary session been used in such a cold, calculated way in order to usurp the power of duly elected constitutional officers.”
“What the Republicans have done is terribly short-sighted and will leave a permanent stain on their and our state’s legacy,” Larson said.
Dozens of opponents lined up to speak against the bills during a committee hearing on Monday, but legislators approved them on a party-line vote late Monday night.
“The people went to the polls and voted for a new direction in Madison, not a repeat of the Scott Walker dirty tricks playbook,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, who heads the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. “It’s time to stop the GOP lame-duck special session power grab.”
Walker has signaled he would sign the bills that limit the governor’s powers, authority the legislature granted him when he came to office in 2011.
The last-minute bills are a fitting end to eight years of total Republican control in Wisconsin that illustrated deep divides within a state known for civility in politics.
Walker’s first term was dominated by conservative legislation that rolled back the power of labor unions to bargain collectively on behalf of public employees. Walker became the first governor in American history to survive a recall election, and he won reelection in 2014 by a slim margin.
After eight years in office, few Wisconsinites did not harbor strong feelings either in support of or opposition to Walker’s governorship. His aborted run for president gave some the impression that he had taken his eye off his day job.
In November, Evers ousted Walker by 1.2 percentage points, or 30,000 votes out of about 2.7 million cast.
Evers will be inaugurated on Jan. 7.
Updated at 9:54 a.m.