Republican-led Wisconsin legislature approves bills to diminish executive power after Democratic election wins

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks during a working lunch with U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. governors at the White House June 21, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Wisconsin Republicans moved overnight to strip power from newly elected Democratic leaders, advancing legislation that would limit early voting, enact Medicaid work requirements and potentially block the incoming attorney general from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit over Obamacare.

The measures are all expected to be signed by lame-duck Republican Gov. Scott Walker, effectively preventing his successor, Gov.-elect Tony Evers, and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul from delivering on the promises that lifted them to victory in November.

Nearly a day after the legislature’s “extraordinary session” began, the state Senate and Assembly concluded their work, passing a raft of legislation designed to curtail authorities enjoyed by Walker and outgoing Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. Democrats are expected to challenge a number of the measures in court.

There is no indication when Walker will take up the legislation, but pending his approval, Wisconsin is now expected to reduce its number of early voting days, restrict gubernatorial influence over a powerful economic agency Evers sought to disband, and require legislative backing for certain decisions traditionally made by the attorney general and governor — a move that would likely block Kaul from pulling the state out of a federal lawsuit against Obamacare.

The legislature will also be able to hire its own lawyers to defend state law in court, diminishing the attorney general’s power.

Evers accused legislators of ignoring the will of the voters.

“Wisconsin has never seen anything like this,” Evers said in a statement Wednesday. “Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on November 6th.”

During the campaign, both Evers and Kaul took their Republican opponents to task over healthcare issues, in particular the state’s participation in the legal challenge which would end coverage protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Walker had promised to call a special legislative session to reimplement the rule on a statewide level if the suit succeeded, but questions lingered over how robust those new protections would be. A GOP measure that included lifetime coverage caps was rejected by Senate Democrats and a pair of Republicans early Wednesday.

One of the bills passed earlier in the session would require permission from the legislature before the state’s executive branch could make waivers or changes to public assistance programs, including work- and drug-testing requirements for “able-bodied” adults, putting into effect Walker’s controversial Medicaid work requirements and requiring Evers to get Republican support if he sought to end them.

Divided along party lines, the GOP-run state budget committee in Wisconsin had a day earlier advanced many of the controversial measures after less than 12 hours of debate and amid growing protests in and around the capitol in Madison.

As the Senate session opened Monday, the public gallery was packed. After some muted laughter, the entire gallery was kicked out — resulting in more protests.

“They can only win by cheating. That’s what they’re doing in there right now,” Kathy Kennedy, a state employee who took the day off to protest in Madison, told CNN. “They’re a bunch of cowards.”

Evers, in prepared testimony before the committee vote, called it “rancor and politics as usual.”

Walker denied on Monday that the moves were a partisan power grab.

“Much of what we did over the last eight years is work with the Legislature,” he told reporters, “not at odds with the Legislature.”

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, has been more open about the partisan machinations in play.

“I don’t have any problem highlighting that right now,” Fitzgerald said on Monday. “I want people to understand that, that there’s going to be a divide between the legislative and executive branch.”

In a statement Tuesday, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Executive Director Jessica Post called the GOP lawmakers’ actions “shameful.”

“Just because Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan don’t like the outcome of the election does not give them (the) right to put power over people and disregard the will of the voters,” Post said. “After years of voter suppression laws enacted by Republican legislators who were elected on their own gerrymandered lines, this partisan gamesmanship has reached a new low.”

Republicans are pulling from a playbook popularized in North Carolina two years ago, when Republicans in the Legislature responded to GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s defeat by taking action — after the election but before his replacement could be sworn in — to reduce incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointees and require his Cabinet picks to be confirmed by lawmakers.

The American Civil Liberties Union excoriated North Carolina Republicans at the time, calling their actions then “a shameful partisan trick.” But the lawmakers ignored the backlash and McCrory signed off on a plan to curtail his successor’s authorities, setting a precedent for Midwestern Republicans, who suffered heavy defeats in 2018.