Wisconsin lawmakers OK weakening governor, attorney general

MADISON, Wis. | The Wisconsin Legislature passed a sweeping measure Wednesday that shifts power to the Republican-controlled body and weakens the Democrat replacing Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Republicans pushed on through protests, internal disagreement and Democratic opposition during a lame-duck legislative session to reduce the powers of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, also a Democrat. Both Evers and Kaul warned that resulting lawsuits would bring more gridlock to Wisconsin when the new administration — and the first divided government in 10 years — takes over in January.

Republicans passed the legislation in an all-night session marked by stops and starts. The Senate approved the package 17-16, with just one Republican voting against, around sunrise. The Assembly approved it on a 56-27 vote about two hours later, sending it on to Walker.

Walker has signaled his support. He has 10 days to sign it from the time it’s delivered to his office. A spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a question about how quickly Walker would act; he was in Washington on Wednesday for former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral.

“This is a heck of a way to run a railroad,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said ahead of the votes, as debate resumed at 5 a.m. “This is embarrassing we’re even here.”

The power grab by Wisconsin Republicans comes after North Carolina lawmakers took similar steps two years ago. Michigan Republicans also are discussing taking action before a Democratic governor takes over there.

In one concession, Republicans backed away from giving the Legislature the power to sidestep the attorney general and appoint their own attorney when state laws are challenged in court.

Walker was booed and heckled during an afternoon Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Capitol rotunda on Tuesday. He’s in his final five weeks as governor after losing a bid for a third term to Evers, the state schools superintendent.

Despite the victories by Evers, Kaul and every other Democrat running for statewide office, Republicans maintained majority control in the Legislature for the next two years. Democrats blamed partisan gerrymandering by Republicans for stacking the electoral map against them.

Faced with a Democratic governor for the first time in eight years, legislative Republicans came up with a package of lame-duck bills to protect their priorities and make it harder for Evers to enact his.

“Why are we here today?” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said as the nine-hour debate began Tuesday night. “What are we doing? Nothing we’re doing here is about helping the people of Wisconsin. It’s about helping politicians. It’s about power and self-interest.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos countered that the bills would ensure a balance of power between the Legislature and the executive branch.

“We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive,” Vos said. “To you this is all about politics. To me, it’s about the institution.”

The legislation would weaken the governor’s ability to put in place rules that enact laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control until September.

It would also limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election, a restriction similar to what a federal judge ruled was unconstitutional. Democrats were optimistic it would be rejected by the courts again.

The proposal would also weaken the attorney general’s office by requiring a legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. That would stop Evers and Kaul from fulfilling their campaign promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They made opposition to that lawsuit a central part of both of their campaigns.

The Legislature passed another measure to enact Medicaid work requirement rules that Walker recently won a federal waiver to establish. The bill would also give the Legislature oversight over the governor seeking future waivers for health care, a change Democrats said would handcuff the new administration.

Protesters have come and gone in the Capitol the past two days as lawmakers rushed to pass the bills. The tumult was reminiscent of much larger demonstrations in the opening weeks of Walker’s time as governor in 2011, when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.

“The first thing Scott Walker did when he walked through the door of the Capitol was to create chaos,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said during Senate debate. “The last thing he is doing is creating chaos.”

Also early Wednesday, the Senate rejected a bill that would have created a state guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can have access to health insurance. Walker had made it a priority during the campaign, but it failed 16-17 after two Republicans joined with all Democrats against. Democrats and other opponents argued the measure provided inadequate coverage and would cause premiums to skyrocket, making coverage unaffordable for people. Instead, Democrats support bolstering coverage guarantees in the federal health care law.

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