Four weeks after Democrats swept all statewide elections, incoming and outgoing Democratic lawmakers from west-central Wisconsin decried Monday’s launch of a lame-duck legislative session they characterized as Republicans seeking to circumvent the results of those midterms.
Regional Republicans, meanwhile, sought to downplay the significance of a series of bills that would limit the power of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.
The bills being considered in the so-called “extraordinary session” — after the November elections but before newly elected officials take office in January — were up for a public hearing and committee vote Monday, setting the stage for the Republican-controlled Legislature to vote on the measures today.
Democrats expressed outrage that Republican leaders would seek to push through changes weakening Evers and Kaul right after voters picked the Democrats to lead state government. Republicans have controlled the Assembly, Senate and governor’s office since 2011.
“I call this demolishing democracy,” said Sen.-elect Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick. “If they think they can control the state of Wisconsin, even though they can’t get voters of this state to agree with them, that’s not democracy.”
Smith called it a sad week in Wisconsin history.
“It brings shame down on Wisconsin once again with these sorts of antics by the leadership of a party that doesn’t truly believe in voters’ right to make their own decisions,” he said.
Rep.-elect Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, was similarly frustrated, calling the measures the political equivalent of a kid who doesn’t get his way saying, “I’m going to take my ball and go home.”
“It is partisan politics at its worst,” Emerson said.
Outgoing Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, called the bills “an outrageous, likely unconstitutional, lurching power grab” by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau. Wachs accused the Republican leaders of pursuing “Soviet-style democracy” with one-party rule.
Area Republicans, by contrast, maintained the changes are intended to restore an appropriate balance of power among branches of state government.
“These proposals help achieve an overdue and critical balance between the roles of the separate and equal legislative and executive branches,” Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, said in a statement. “Many of the provisions that have been put forward strengthen the legislature’s oversight role to continue protecting taxpayers as we move into the next legislative session.”
Petryk indicated Monday afternoon he planned to listen to floor debate and gather input from constituents before determining how he would vote on the measures.
Retiring Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, said in a statement that most of the special session proposals called for “minor changes intended to ensure parity between the equal branches of government” and indicated they wouldn’t have a significant impact on the power of Evers and Kaul.
As examples, Moulton noted that one proposal would add members to boards that oversee things like economic development and state employee health insurance to make sure the governor and Legislature have an equal say in decisions made by those boards and another would give legislators input into how lawsuit settlement money is spent. That is now determined by the attorney general.
Asked why, if the changes were a good idea, they weren’t addressed before voters elected members of the other party to be governor and attorney general, Moulton said the effort to return some semblance of parity to the branches began earlier this session and the special session bills continue that process.
“Voters across much of the state, including the district I currently represent in western Wisconsin, don’t want to see a new governor and attorney general, largely elected by Madison and Milwaukee, undo so many of the important reforms we were able to accomplish over the last eight years,” Moulton said in a follow-up statement.
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, suggested in a statement that he supports a measure to give the Legislature more control over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to protect it from Evers, who said during the campaign he intended to dismantle the WEDC and return to the previous Department of Commerce mode of promoting economic development. Summerfield pointed out that the WEDC had awarded more than $1.5 million to projects in his 67th Assembly District.
State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, previously acknowledged to the Leader-Telegram that Republicans limiting Evers’ authority just before he takes office would have “bad optics” but said Monday in a statement that she supports the special session bills out of her longtime concern that the executive branches of government at the state and federal level have become too powerful.
“We were all taught in school that it is the Legislature which writes laws and the executive branch which carries out and enforces those laws,” Bernier said. “That constitutional principle has been turned on its head in the past century. I firmly believe that providing for legislative oversight is appropriate when policy decisions are being made.”
Like Moulton, Bernier, who will succeed Moulton in the 23rd Senate District seat, said the changes “will protect our legacy of reforms.”
Democrats, however, suggested voters clearly rejected the main person behind those reforms, GOP Gov. Scott Walker, in last month’s midterms.
“Republicans are spitting in the eyes of voters,” Smith said.
Outgoing Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, criticized the speed and secrecy surrounding the special session bills and said the timetable wouldn’t allow time for constituents to learn the details or for lawmakers to hear and heed the desire of constituents.
“The will of the people is not represented in this final act by Republicans and Governor Walker,” Vinehout said in a statement. “Wisconsinites elected a new governor with different priorities and their expectation is a respectful transition of power.”
Emerson and Smith both pointed to GOP gerrymandering — drawing legislative district lines to their partisan advantage — as a key reason why Republicans feel emboldened to try to expand their power in a lame-duck session. They noted that Republicans have an overwhelming 64-35 majority in the Assembly even though Democratic Assembly candidates received a total of 1.3 million votes in the midterms, compared with 1.1 million votes for Republicans.
“They don’t have to answer to voters because of the way they drew the lines,” Emerson said.
Smith and Emerson noted the irony of lawmakers discussing the special session bills on the same day they were planning to attend bipartisan orientation sessions in Madison where they expected to hear speeches about the importance of getting along with members of the other major party and working for the betterment of the state.
Such a controversial opening move by Republicans as Wisconsin is about to return to divided government will make bipartisan cooperation more difficult, Smith said.
Regarding a bill to move Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary from April to March to separate a Wisconsin Supreme Court election from an expected competitive Democratic presidential primary that might drive up Democratic turnout, Bernier and Summerfield said they are working with GOP leaders to address additional costs and concerns related to administering an additional election.
While Moulton said moving the election would give Wisconsinites a greater say in picking the next president, he indicated he does not plan to support the measure because of the extra expense to taxpayers.
These sitting and incoming regional legislators did not respond Monday to a Leader-Telegram email seeking their views on the special session proposals: Rep.-elect Jesse James, R-Altoona, Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, and Republican Reps. Rob Stafsholt of New Richmond, Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls, Bob Kulp of Stratford, James Edming of Glen Flora, Treig Pronschinske of Mondovi and Romaine Quinn of Barron.