Wisconsin Republicans OK bills to weaken incoming Democratic governor, attorney general

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature approved a sweeping measure on Wednesday designed to weaken the Democrat replacing Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Democrats threaten to bring lawsuits if controversial measures are enacted

State legislators are set to send dozens of changes in state law to the desk of outgoing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, who failed to win re-election in the midterms and is being replaced by a Democrat. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via Associated Press)

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature approved a sweeping measure on Wednesday designed to weaken the Democrat replacing Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Republicans worked through the night amid late protests, internal disagreement and Democratic opposition to the measures, which are designed to reduce the powers of incoming Democratic governor-elect Tony Evers and Democratic attorney general-elect Josh Kaul.

The state assembly approved the lame-duck legislation Wednesday morning, about 2½ hours after the Wisconsin Senate did the same. The bills now go to outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has signalled his support.

Evers and Kaul had urged Republicans not to approve the bills during the lame-duck legislative session, warning that lawsuits would bring more gridlock to Wisconsin when the new administration — and the first divided government in 10 years — takes over.

Nothing we're doing here is about helping the people of Wisconsin. It's about power and self-interest.- Democratic Assembly minority leader Gordon Hintz

But Republicans forged ahead regardless.

"This is a heck of a way to run a railroad," Democratic Senate minority leader Jennifer Shilling said early Wednesday morning before the votes. "This is embarrassing we're even here."

All-night negotiations

In one concession, Republicans backed away from giving the legislature the power to sidestep the attorney general and appoint its own attorney when state laws are challenged in court. An amendment to do away with that provision was part of a Republican rewrite of the bill, made public around 4:30 a.m. CT after all-night negotiations.

Walker, who was booed and heckled during an afternoon Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Capitol rotunda late Tuesday, has signalled support for the measures that he would have to sign before they take effect. He's in his final five weeks as governor after losing a bid for a third term to Evers, the state schools superintendent.

People protest the Wisconsin legislature's extraordinary session during the official Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison on Tuesday. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via Associated Press)

Despite the victories by Evers, Kaul and every other Democrat running for statewide office, Republicans maintained majority control in the legislature for the next two years. Democrats blamed partisan gerrymandering by Republicans for stacking the electoral map against them.

But 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.

"Why are we here today?" Democratic Assembly minority leader Gordon Hintz said as the debate of more than nine hours began late Tuesday night. "What are we doing? Nothing we're doing here is about helping the people of Wisconsin. It's about helping politicians. It's about power and self-interest."

Assembly speaker Robin Vos countered that the bills will 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."

Voting restrictions

The bills would shield the state's quasi-private job-creation agency from Evers' control until September. Evers has said he wants to dissolve the agency and replace it with one that's fully public.

The legislation would also limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election, a restriction similar to what a federal judge ruled was unconstitutional. Democrats were optimistic it would be rejected by the courts again.

State Sen. Tim Carpenter, left, a Democrat, speaks at the Capitol in Madison on Tuesday as legislators pressed ahead with legislation to curtail the incoming Democratic governor's powers. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via Associated Press)

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 their campaign promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation also known as Obamacare. They made opposition to that lawsuit a central part of both of their campaigns.

The legislature passed another measure to enact Medicaid work requirement rules that Walker recently won a federal waiver to establish. The 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.

The proposals come after North Carolina lawmakers took similar steps two years ago. Michigan Republicans also are discussing taking action before a Democratic governor takes over there.

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."