MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The incoming Democratic governor of Wisconsin says he plans to make a personal appeal to his defeated rival, Gov. Scott Walker, to veto far-reaching GOP legislation that would strip the new administration of some powers. If that doesn’t work, he might sue.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Walker is expected to sign the package of bills that would limit the power of the governor's office moving forward.
Republicans pushed on through protests, internal disagreement and Democratic opposition in a lame-duck legislative session to reduce the powers of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. Both Evers and Kaul warned that resulting lawsuits would bring more gridlock to Wisconsin when the new administration — and the first divided government in 10 years — takes over in January.
State Sen. Robert Cowles of Allouez was the only Republican senator to vote against the most controversial bill to reduce early voting and limit some of the governor's and attorney general's powers.
“The will of the people has officially been ignored by the Legislature,” Gov. Tony Evers said, adding that the lawmakers’ actions “take us back to Nov. 6,” before the election was finalized.
“Wisconsin should be embarrassed by this,” Evers said.
He said Wednesday that he will talk to Walker as soon as the bills reach his desk and that if he cannot persuade the governor to veto the proposals, he will consider lawsuits and any other option “to make sure that this legislation does not get into practice.”
The votes early Wednesday were the height of a rare lame-duck legislative session. Walker has signaled his support for the bills. He has 10 days to sign the package after it’s delivered to his office.
A Walker spokeswoman said the governor, who was in Washington for former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral, would not have any public comment Wednesday.
Republicans were battered in the midterm election — losing all statewide races amid strong Democratic turnout — but they retained legislative majorities thanks to what Democrats say are gerrymandered districts that tilt the map against them.
The GOP power grab comes after North Carolina lawmakers took similar steps two years ago, and as Michigan Republicans are discussing taking action before a Democratic governor takes over there.
Republicans passed the legislation in an all-night session marked by stops and starts as GOP leaders tried to muster enough votes in the Senate. That chamber ultimately approved the package 17-16, with just one Republican voting against it, around sunrise. The Assembly approved it on a 56-27 vote about two hours later, sending it on to Walker with only one Republican, Todd Novak of Dodgeville, voting against, saying he heard from an "overwhelming number" of his constituents who opposed to the legislation.
“This is a heck of a way to run a railroad,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said as Senate debate resumed at 5 a.m. after a seven-hour impasse. “This is embarrassing we’re even here.”
The new legislation tries to protect some of the GOP’s achievements in recent years, including a work requirement for some people receiving state health care and the state’s role in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The bills could also make it harder for Evers to renegotiate a $3 billion subsidy for a Foxconn electronics manufacturing facility, a deal spearheaded by Walker.
In one concession, Wisconsin Republicans backed away from giving the Legislature the power to sidestep the attorney general and appoint their own attorney at taxpayers expense when state laws are challenged in court.
Walker was booed and heckled by protesters Tuesday during an afternoon Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. He’s in his final five weeks as governor after losing a bid for a third term to Evers, the state schools superintendent.
Faced with a Democratic governor for the first time in eight years, legislative Republicans came up with a package of lame-duck bills to protect their priorities and make it harder for Evers to enact his.
“You’re here because you don’t want to give up power,” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said as debate concluded in that chamber. “You’re sore losers. Does anybody think this is the right way to do business? If you vote for this, shame on you. You will go down in history as a disgrace.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos countered that the bills would ensure a balance of power between the Legislature and the executive branch.
“We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive,” Vos said. “To you this is all about politics. To me, it’s about the institution.”
Vos last month cited the desire to protect key Republican achievements from being undone by Evers. Among them: a massive $3 billion subsidy to bring Foxconn, a key Apple Inc. supplier, to Wisconsin, along with thousands of jobs. Evers has said he would like to renegotiate the deal.
The legislation passed Wednesday would shield the state jobs agency from his control and allow the board to choose its leader until September, likely at least delaying Evers’ ability to maneuver on the Foxconn subsidy.
The legislation would weaken the governor’s ability to put in place rules that enact laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control until September. It also would limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election, a restriction similar to what a federal judge ruled was unconstitutional .
The proposal would also weaken the attorney general’s office by requiring a legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. That would stop Evers and Kaul from fulfilling promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They made opposition to that lawsuit a central part of both of their campaigns.
Democrats say the legislation will spark lawsuits across multiple courts. Judges could block the proposals if they become law by issuing temporary injunctions, which could last the duration of the cases. Democrats would likely need a permanent injunction to stop the changes for good, but Republicans would almost certainly pursue appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservative justices.
The Legislature passed another measure to enact Medicaid work requirement rules that Walker recently won a federal waiver to establish. That bill would also give the Legislature oversight over the governor seeking future waivers for health care, a change Democrats said would handcuff the new administration.
Protesters have come and gone in the Capitol the past two days as lawmakers rushed to pass the bills. The tumult was reminiscent of much larger demonstrations in the opening weeks of Walker’s time as governor in 2011, when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
“The first thing Scott Walker did when he walked through the door of the Capitol was to create chaos,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said during Senate debate. “The last thing he is doing is creating chaos.”
Also early Wednesday, the Senate rejected a bill that would have created a state guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can have access to health insurance. Walker had made it a priority during the campaign, but it failed 16-17 after two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it. Democrats and other opponents argue the measure provided inadequate coverage and would cause premiums to skyrocket, making coverage unaffordable for people. Instead, Democrats support bolstering coverage guarantees in the federal health care law.
Vos, the Assembly speaker, said Wednesday morning that he expects Assembly Republicans will bring the bill back early next year.