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Wisconsin GOP curtails powers of incoming Dems

Wisconsin’s Republican-led General Assembly on Wednesday passed a handful of measures that will limit the power of the state’s incoming Democratic governor and attorney general amid loud protests over what Democrats called a blatant power grab.

The lame-duck session, which drew hundreds to the state Capitol demanding that their votes be respected, is, in a way, a fitting end to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) controversial eight years in office.

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Walker presided over a deeply divisive time in Wisconsin politics, marked by protests over a Republican-led effort to curtail public employee union rights, one of the nation’s strictest voter identification laws and an investigation into his campaign’s fundraising practices that led to the dissolution of the state’s campaign finance watchdog.

Walker became just the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall campaign — and the first to win the right to stay in office.

“He entered office with protesters of Act 10, and he’s leaving office with protesters of these last minute actions,” said Michael Wagner, a political science and journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, referring to 2011 legislation intended to curtail public employee union powers.

“The legislature’s penchant for working in secret and working at the last minute has increased.”

On Wednesday, the state legislature wrote one more chapter in Wisconsin’s era of tumultuous Republican dominance, meant to deny incoming Democratic officeholders some of the powers those same Republican legislators had delegated to Walker eight years ago.

The state Assembly put a final stamp of approval on several bills early Wednesday, hours after an all-night state Senate session ratified the measures before the sun rose.

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,” Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) told The Hill in an interview this weekend.

The most important curb to Evers’s power will be a provision that gives the legislature the power to block rules that govern how state laws are implemented. Legislators had no trouble with Walker interpreting the laws they passed, but Evers will now face scrutiny for his interpretations.

Another provision would require Evers to seek the legislature’s permission before asking the federal government to change jointly operated state and federal programs. That measure is meant to protect Walker-era rules that require citizens to adhere to work requirements to access some state services.

A third provision targets the Attorney General’s Office, which Democrat Josh Kaul won over incumbent Republican Brad Schimel in November. The provision would allow the legislature to hire its own lawyers to defend state laws.

“It’s never happened in Wisconsin where the job descriptions of the executive office and the attorney general has changed just because a side lost an election,” Wagner said.

The legislature also 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 it is in other more rural, more conservative parts of the state.

Republicans cast the measures as a way to protect Walker’s legacy.

“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.”

Robin Vos, the Speaker of the state Assembly, said the package of bills was “an important step in restoring the balance of power in government.”

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.

Legislative leaders also said they hoped to pass new tax incentives for Kimberly-Clark, the paper manufacturer based in the Fox Valley. Those incentives were also dropped from the final bill.

“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. They amended the bills during an overnight session Tuesday into Wednesday morning before approving them on a nearly party-line vote.

Only one Republican broke with his party to oppose the package of bills.

“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.

About a month after losing his job to Evers by 1.2 percentage points, Walker signaled he would sign the bills that limit the power his office once held. It is the latest — and last — sign of the degradation of the state’s reputation as a bastion of cooperative governance during the Walker years.

“Wisconsin has a hard-won and long-standing reputation as a place where good governance was the norm,” Wagner said. “A lot of the architecture of what [early 20th century Wisconsin politician] Fightin’ Bob La Follette and others created was open and transparent government, and a lot of that has fallen away in the last 10 years.”

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 about 30,000 votes out of about 2.7 million cast.

Evers will be inaugurated on Jan. 7.