Legislature Limits Governor’s Power with Lame Duck Bills

Wisconsin State Capitol

 

Author: Will Kenneally

The Wisconsin legislature has passed a series of bills that would take power away from the offices of governor and attorney general, and make it harder for the new administration to repeal Gov. Scott Walker-era policies.

The legislation takes power previously held by the two executive offices and places it with the state legislature–which is currently controlled by Republicans.

Democrats criticized the measures, calling them a power grab.

“We’re making history here tonight, and not in a good way,” said Democratic Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha.

Republicans said the measures are needed to protect the policies passed with a public mandate while Walker was governor. The office will be held by a Democrat for the first time in eight years when Tony Evers becomes governor in January.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Will Kenneally/WSUM)

“We do not believe any one individual should have the opportunity to come in and, with the stroke of the pen, eliminate laws that have been passed by our legislature or found constitutional by our courts,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at a news conference before the legislative session.

The package of bills requires Gov.-elect Tony Evers seek legislative approval to change policies such as mandating work or job training for childless adults obtaining Medicaid. The legislation also temporarily reduces the governor’s power to appoint members to the state’s economic development board.

The governor-elect criticized the legislation, saying “this is rancor and politics as usual.”

“It flies in the face of democratic institutions and the checks and balances that are intended to prevent power-hungry politicians from clinging to control when they do not get their way,” Evers wrote in testimony sent to the committee which considered the legislation.

The package also includes legislation that changes the role of the state’s attorney general, allowing the state legislature control aspects of how the Department of Justice litigates cases.

“What we need to be doing is focusing on the significant challenges we face like our opioid epidemic, like school safety,” Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul said. “It’s also going to make it much more difficult to settle certain cases because there now needs to be approval from a legislative committee.”

Overall, the package includes legislation to:

  • Eliminate the office of solicitor general in the Department of Justice
  • Allow the legislature to be the lead litigant on cases whether laws’ constitutionality are questioned
  • Give the legislature approval over security changes at the Capitol, including firearm restrictions
  • Require the attorney general to seek legislative approval on how to use funds in state-won lawsuits
  • Codify the use of university IDs with proof of enrollment to receive voting IDs

The only bill failing to pass was legislation to extend state-level health insurance protections against discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. This would keep a popular provision of the Affordable Care Act if the federal law was repealed or struck down by a court. Sens. Dave Craig and Chris Kapenga joined Democrats in voting against the bill, which failed on a slim 16-17 margin.

Bills to move the 2020 presidential primary and to give Foxconn-like tax incentives to paper goods company Kimberly-Clark were originally on the session’s docket but were ultimately dropped from the final package. 

The Senate also approved 82 gubernatorial appointments, which included two new members to the UW Board of Regents. Scott Beightol replaces Bryan Steil, who will leave the board to take Paul Ryan’s seat in Congress, and Torrey Tiedeman, who fills a year-old vacancy.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include amendments to the bills and the final vote. WSUM’s broadcast license is held by the UW Board of Regents.