We live in an era of the previously “unprecedented” becoming normalized and the current power grab unfolding in Wisconsin is just the latest salvo in a near-constant attack on democratic processes and good governance that began in earnest in our state eight years ago.
It’s not unique to us, but it’s often a bellwether of national trends: In Wisconsin, as in at least four other states, Republican-controlled legislatures are currently attempting end-runs around the November election results, when the so-called blue wave saw Republicans lose ground in statehouses across the country.
Republicans, it seems, are not giving up power — or giving in to voter opinion — quite so easily.
Late on Friday afternoon, Wisconsin Republicans dropped a sweeping set of proposed legislative changes that would severely undermine the power of incoming Governor Tony Evers and incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul, limit early voting and change the date of an election specifically to benefit the reelection bid of a conservative state Supreme Court justice.
Why? Voters in November elected Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — both Democrats — as well as Democrat Kaul after eight years of Republican domination of all branches of government. Democrats also won the state Assembly popular vote 54 percent to 46 percent, though you wouldn’t know it by the resulting representation: The GOP maintained 64 percent of Assembly seats, with Democrats holding just 36 percent.
Thanks to successful efforts by the GOP majority to gerrymander the state’s electoral maps in 2011 (an effort currently being challenged in the courts), their party has seen their representation in the legislature steadily grow over the past four elections, despite a fairly even split in party support statewide.
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And then, almost immediately after the midterm election results were in, Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans, began floating the idea of fundamentally altering the powers of the governor and state attorney general.
If this rings any bells, it’s likely because Republicans in North Carolina did almost the exact same thing after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016. North Carolina’s GOP had been chipping away at the already-weak governors' powers for a decade, rendering each one, as one commentator put it, nothing more than a “potted plant.” GOP legislatures in Michigan and Ohio are attempting similar subversions of democratic will.
Wisconsin Republicans appear keen to follow that model, and they’re eagerly preparing to do so: The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee opened a hearing on the proposed legislation from Friday on Monday, passed all but the election scheduling provisions in a middle-of-the-night party-line vote, and plan to vote on the package in both houses of the legislature on Tuesday. If passed, the changes would have to be signed off on by outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker. Walker has yet to make any public comment on his intentions, but doesn’t exactly have a track record of standing against his party.
Fitzgerald and Vos are framing the push as a mere effort to “rebalance” the scales between the branches of government. In a press conference, Vos claimed the bills are needed because “the legislature is the most representative of the people,” despite the disparity between popular vote totals and actual representation in the legislature — and never mind that the idea was never discussed while their own party held the governor’s and attorney general’s office.
The consequences of such drastic alterations to how our state is governed would be far-reaching.
Early voting would be limited to just two weeks, likely hurting overall turnout, which would almost assuredly have a negative impact on voters across the state, regardless of party affiliation. Similar Republican-passed limits to early voting were struck down in 2016, when U.S. District Judge James Peterson found them to be “part of a Republican effort of ‘stifling votes for partisan gain.’”
The case is now pending before an appeals court and a lawyer who helped bring that case has threatened to file another lawsuit if the new changes are passed. In fact, the new rules could play a part in the existing lawsuit, helping to further prove partisan intent.
Meanwhile, Republicans are also taking aim at one of Evers’ and Barnes’ key campaign promises by requiring them to seek approval from the legislature before withdrawing Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act and meddling in the state’s $9 billion Medicaid program generally. Many of the state’s largest health care providers sent a letter on Monday protesting the proposed changes, saying they haven’t been included in the process and that it could have “unintended consequences” for Wisconsinites.
Appointees to the Group Insurance Board, which makes decisions for state employee health plans (and which recently narrowly passed a removal of a ban on transgender related coverage), would also require legislative approval if Republicans get their way, as well as any significant changes to Medicaid proposed by the Department of Health. Even Walker vetoed a similar change as recently as last year, accusing his own party of “micromanaging.”
And, though unlikely to pass on Tuesday, the original GOP plan would have also moved the 2020 presidential primary dates — making the state hold three elections in three months — as part of an explicit effort to benefit a conservative Supreme Court justice’s election bid. According to a recent estimate by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, this would increase costs from $6.4 million to $6.8 million.
Meanwhile, the legislation would allow lawmakers to replace the attorney general on certain cases, instead using expensive private attorneys of their choosing. For instance, if Republicans thought Kaul’s office was unlikely to fight federal or state rules that went against their partisan views, they could simply replace him with attorneys that would hew to their party line, which negates the purpose of a state attorney general.
At the start of the packed Joint Finance Committee hearing, Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor asked the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau whether there was any precedent for an extraordinary session being called to limit the powers of the incoming governor or attorney general. The answer, of course, was no. But the unprecedented nature of the power grab doesn't mean they're likely to end their efforts any time soon.