MADISON, Wis. (CN) – After debating and caucusing through the night in a rare lame-duck session, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature passed a package of bills Wednesday morning giving more power to lawmakers and weakening the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.
In addition to placing sweeping limits on the powers of Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, the legislation also shortens the early-voting period to no more than two weeks before an election.
The Wisconsin Senate adjourned around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday, with the State Assembly also adjourning shortly after. Both chambers worked through the night after initially getting their respective sessions underway hours after planned start times Tuesday.
The Senate passed the package limiting the powers of the governor’s office 17-16, almost entirely along party lines with Senator Rob Cowles of Green Bay being the only Republican to defect. The Assembly, which has a much more comfortable Republican majority, passed the legislation by a vote of 56-27.
There were some changes to the bills. The original legislation would have permanently blocked Evers from assigning the chief executive to the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC, a public-private jobs agency formed during outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker’s tenure that has been the subject of audits for misuse of funds.
But the amended bill gives control of the WEDC, including the power to assign the members of its board, to the Legislature until September. The Republican-majority control over the agency will be relinquished in favor of an even bipartisan split.
Evers had stated a desire to dismantle the agency on the campaign trail.
Another bill that was passed Wednesday has to do with control of federal waivers for Medicaid. It codifies drug testing and minimum work requirements for some recipients of welfare such as food stamps. This measure also gives the Legislature broad oversight over any move the governor would make over future health care waivers.
Republican did, however, let go of some of the restrictions they were seeking to place on Evers’ control of state rules, but still left themselves a window to challenge him and block any moves he might make regarding those rules.
The proceedings in both chambers were bitter and tense.
The lame-duck session that began Monday drew over a thousand protestors to the steps and galleries of the state Capitol, with chants of “Stop this coup!” and “Respect our vote!” heard echoing throughout the building.
Senate President Roger Roth, R- Appleton, had to clear the Senate chamber Tuesday after issuing two warnings to vocal opponents in the gallery.
Throughout Tuesday’s long night that saw many extended breaks for private partisan caucusing, in what was the longest session of the Wisconsin Legislature since 1995 deliberations over the construction of the Miller Park baseball stadium, Democratic lawmakers continuously voiced dismay and disappointment at the fact that the extraordinary sessions were even occurring.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D- La Crosse, hd told Republicans on the Senate floor that that “your antics today are what the voters rejected on Nov. 6,” before asking that they “stop putting power and politics over people and accept the results of the election.”
Senator Jon Erpenbach, D- Middleton, said “there is nothing legitimate about what we’re doing here tonight.”
“The voters have spoken,” Erpenbach continued, “and the only thing the voters are going to remember about tonight is that their vote does not matter in the eyes of the majority.”
On the Assembly floor, Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, co-architect of the lame-duck session bills along with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R- Juneau, downplayed “exaggerating” by Democrats and compared state politics to a game of euchre, in which the governor “starts out with a much better hand.”
Vos argued the measures taken in the lame-duck session were only intended to level the playing field for Republicans and ensure co-equal branches of government, a notion echoed by Republican colleagues like Representative John Nygren, R- Marinette.
Higher profile names weighed in on the drama in Madison as well.
Prominent Milwaukee venture capitalist and philanthropist Sheldon Lubar, a longtime supporter of Walker, voiced opposition to what he considered the damage being done by the extraordinary session in a statement released Tuesday.
Eric Holder, a former attorney general under President Barack Obama, warned that Walker’s legacy would be stained by this week’s session and it would “have a negative impact on his ability to seek office in the future.”
Perhaps the marquee piece of legislation that did not make it past deliberation would have put into state law a provision protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Senators Chris Kapenga, R- Delafield, and David Craig, R- Big Bend, joined Democrats in opposing the measure, which they argued did not go far enough to protect people with pre-existing conditions, in part because it allowed for lifetime caps.
Governor Walker, who has been vocal in his derision of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, had promised to protect pre-existing conditions on the campaign trail.
But Senator Mark Miller, D- Monona, criticized the “fig leaf” coverage of the bill, saying that although the legislation uses all the right terms politically, it fails when it comes down to actual coverage.
Another provision that ended up on the cutting room floor was one that would have given the Legislature the ability to go around the state attorney general and hire private attorneys to represent the state in lawsuits, at the expense of taxpayers.
But the approved legislation does require a legislative committee to sign off on withdrawing Wisconsin from federal lawsuits. That will likely stop Governor-elect Evers and Attorney General-elect Kaul from fulfilling campaign promises to leave a multi-state conservative effort to kill Obamacare.
Also approved were 82 last-minute appointments made by Governor Walker, including two appointees to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. One of them will replace Bryan Steil, who recently was elected to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan in Congress. Another notable appointment is that of Ellen Nowak, Walker’s former Department of Administration secretary, to head the state’s Public Service Commission.
On the Senate floor, many Democrats voiced concerns that none of the appointees had undergone a proper vetting process or had submitted statements of economic interest, with 30 of them having bypassed public hearings. Evers penned a letter earlier Tuesday asking Walker to reconsider the appointments, to no avail.
Other business that did not survive the extraordinary session was a hotly debated proposal to move the 2020 presidential primary from April to March, seen by opponents as a way to ensure the re-election of Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, a Walker appointee, by separating his ticket from the larger presidential primary when Democratic turnout is expected to be strong.
A proposal to provide tax incentives and preserve jobs at Kimberly-Clark, a paper company based in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley, was never even discussed despite it being a considerable sticking point for Governor Walker. Transportation-related legislation aiming to concentrate federal dollars into a smaller number of infrastructure projects passed along party lines.
The passed legislation will now go to Walker’s desk, and he has indicated he plans to sign off on it before Evers and Kaul are sworn in on Jan. 7.
Legal challenges over the bills are almost certain, particularly over the limits on early voting. A similar provision was struck down in 2016 by a federal judge who deemed it racially discriminatory and unconstitutional.