Lame-Duck Wisconsin Governor Signs Bills Limiting New Dems

(CN) – Outgoing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed three bills Friday giving more power to the Republican-controlled Legislature and weakening the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.

Backtracking from early indications that he might veto certain items in the lame-duck bills, the Republican governor approved them in their entirety, solidifying into law restrictions on the powers of incoming Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, both Democrats.

In this Oct. 19, 2018, file photo, Democratic challenger Tony Evers, left, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, shake hands during gubernatorial debate in Madison, Wis. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

The provisions in what are now Wisconsin statutes give the Legislature the power to appoint board members and restrict Evers’ ability to appoint the chief executive to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation,or WEDC, a public-private jobs agency formed during Walker’s tenure.

The new measures also give state lawmakers broad oversight power over moves the governor could make on future health care waivers.

In addition, the new laws implement drug testing and minimum work requirements for some recipients of welfare such as food stamps, as well as a statewide two-week limit on early voting that is likely to spur legal challenges.

Flanked by two Republican legislators – Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Representative John Macco of Ledgeview – Walker pointed to a poster-board Venn diagram showing that the powers held by him and the incoming governor are the same.  

Signing the bills at a state office building in Green Bay, Walker reiterated that the fundamental executive powers of the governorship will remain intact.

The two-term governor brushed aside press coverage of the lame-duck legislation, saying that “a lot of what’s being said will help fundraising efforts,” but assured the room that what he signed does not live up to the “hype and hysteria.”

Of the early voting limits that have been integral to the bills’ controversy, Walker called it “a simple measure that makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

“I like early voting,” Walker said, “but I like it to be fair.”

Whereas before voters in more populous areas of the state,namely the safely Democratic cities of Milwaukee and Madison, had as long as six weeks to vote early, they now will only have two weeks, a limit that has been decried by state clerks and election officials in those areas as a logistical nightmare.

“It should be uniform in terms of the number of days,” Walker said.

A sticking point that delayed Walker acting on the legislation was a deal to provide tax incentives and save jobs at Kimberly-Clark, a paper products company based in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley. That deal was never even discussed during last week’s brief lame-duck legislative session.

Walker claimed that he would not consider the legislation until he was able to secure that deal, which he announced had been completed Thursday.

Kimberly-Clark will receive $28 million of taxpayer money over the next five years, the company’s plant in Fox Crossing will remain open,and it expected to retain around 2,400 jobs statewide. Its facilities in Neenah, Wisconsin, and Conway, Arkansas, will close as part of that agreement.

Walker’s actions conclude two weeks of scrambling and tension across the Badger State that started with a surprise introduction of lame-duck proposals from Republican lawmakers in the late afternoon of Friday, Nov. 30.

The legislation then went to state’s Joint Committee on Finance on Monday, Dec. 3, before entering Tuesday’s all-night floor sessions in the Senate and Assembly that did not wrap up until around 8 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5.

The Senate passed the package by a slim 17-16 vote, with Senator Rob Cowles of Green Bay being the only Republican to break the party line. The Assembly, which has a top-heavy Republican advantage, passed the bills by a vote of 56-27.

Certain controversial provisions of the bills did not survive those sessions.

The original package would have permanently blocked Evers from assigning the chief executive to the board of the WEDC instead of only delegating that power to the Legislature until September, at which point the Republican-majority control over the agency will be relinquished in favor of an even bipartisan split. Republicans also ended up letting go of more restrictions they were seeking to place on Evers’ control of state rules.

In a statement released Tuesday, Walker tried to clear up “misinformation”about the legislation ahead of signing it. He laid out his “straightforward criteria for reviewing the legislation,” which included looking at whether the provisions improve transparency, increase accountability, affirm stability and protect Wisconsin taxpayers.

“The bottom-line is that we are working with Governor-elect Tony Evers to make sure that he has a good transition,” the outgoing governor said.

The statement also tried to quell suspicions about 82 appointments that were confirmed by the Legislature during the lame-duck session and signed into law Friday, saying none of the appointments are technically civil service positions.

Milwaukee venture capitalist and former Walker supporter Sheldon Lubar doubled down on his early criticism of the lame-duck session late last week, saying it would “destroy” Walker’s legacy in the state.

“I think it will fail in court,” Lubar said, “but that won’t change how the history of Wisconsin looks on him. They can look on him as somebody who ignores the will of the people and creeps into the house at midnight to steal away the result of their vote.”

In addition to the checks on the governor, the legislation also eliminates the state Department of Justice’s solicitor general’s office.This means that AG-elect Kaul will not have the independent office available if he wanted to challenge any Wisconsin laws, including the ones enacted by the bills.

Also outlined in the measures is the power for the Legislature to intervene in any of the state’s lawsuits, further checking the abilities Kaul has to litigate on the state’s behalf.

This likely means that Kaul will face road blocks if he attempts to fulfill his campaign promise to pull Wisconsin out of a Walker-approved lawsuit with other states that seeks to kill the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Kaul also will need legislative approval in handling settlement money Wisconsin receives under the terms of the new statutes.

The bills have attracted nationwide attention, drawing comparisons to similar fights in Michigan this year and North Carolina in 2016. The actions by GOP lawmakers in North Carolina stripped powers from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper before he took office, which brought about legal disputes that are still working through the courts.

A provision similar to the new early-voting limit was struck down in 2016 by U.S. District Judge James Peterson for being racially discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Republican lawmakers and Governor Walker have expressed confidence that this version of the limit will survive legal scrutiny.

One Wisconsin Institute, the same liberal advocacy group that sued over early-voting limits in 2016, announced hours after Walker signed the lame-duck bills Friday that it will sue over the new early-voting limits laid out in the legislation.

Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin, said in a statement, “This attack by Republicans in the Legislature is not just unprecedented – it’s undemocratic, it’s unconstitutional, it’s un-American.”

“With the support of the National Redistricting Foundation,our legal counsel will be taking legal action to defend the voting rights victories we won in court in 2016 and protect the rights of Wisconsin voters, present and future,” he said.

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