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WI Dems press conference

From left: Treasurer-elect Sara Godlewski, Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes, Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.

Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers isn't ruling out a lawsuit to challenge a set of lame-duck measures passed early Wednesday morning that would curb the powers of Wisconsin's incoming Democratic administration. 

Appearing at the Tommy G. Thompson Center in downtown Madison, Evers told reporters Wednesday afternoon his focus for the time being is on urging voters to contact Republican Gov. Scott Walker and urge him to veto the proposals sent to his desk by the Republican-led Legislature.

"I view this, what has passed, as frankly, a hot mess, and together all of it is, I think, dangerous precedent," Evers said during a news conference in downtown Madison. 

If Walker signs the legislation — which he has suggested he will do — Evers said "all issues are on the table, whether it's litigation or other issues." 

Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul told reporters on Tuesday the bills are "virtually certain to end up in litigation."

Lawmakers worked through the night as they navigated closed-door meetings and negotiations to pass the bills, first introduced Friday afternoon, which earned no Democratic support and drew a handful of Republican defectors. 

The state Senate voted 17-16 to approve measures that would curb the authorities of the incoming Democratic administration and narrow the state's window for early voting. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, joined Democrats in opposing the wide-reaching bill, which cleared the chamber around 6 a.m. The Assembly passed the bill on a 56-27 vote just before 8:30 a.m.

Proponents of the legislation have argued it is necessary to maintain a balance of power among each branch of state government. Voters on Nov. 6 elected Democrats to lead the executive and judicial branches, but Republicans retained majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Under the legislation, the state could not withdraw from a lawsuit without legislative approval — a change that would prevent Evers and Kaul from upholding their campaign promises to remove Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Kaul told reporters Wednesday the provision shows the Legislature is "disregarding the votes of Wisconsinites." He invoked the cliche of politicians working behind closed doors after dark.

"This was literally done behind closed doors in the middle of the night. The people of Wisconsin deserve much better than this," Kaul said. 

The legislation would also eliminate the solicitor general's office. It would also allow lawmakers to hire private attorneys to intervene on their behalf if a state law is challenged in court, although the special counsel would not act in place of the attorney general as was proposed when the bill was first introduced. In those cases, lawmakers would have final approval of settlements.

Under the bill, legislators would have increased influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the WEDC board, not the governor, would appoint the job creation agency's CEO. However, the governor's power to appoint a CEO would be restored in September 2019. Evers has proposed eliminating the agency, and Republicans are hoping to change his mind in the coming months. 

The legislation would also prevent Evers from banning guns in the Capitol without legislative approval, and would limit the ability of Evers' administration to implement the rules that dictate how state laws are enforced.

Evers said Wednesday the decision of whether to allow guns in the Capitol should be up to the governor, but that provision is just "one of many" problematic elements of the bill. 

The bill also limits the time during which early voting may take place to two weeks before an election.

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Despite the tensions stemming from the lame-duck session and the transition from one administration to the next, leaders of both parties continue to pledge commitments to working across the aisle.

"All four of us have been committed to working together with the legislature," Kaul said, referring to himself, Evers, Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes and state Treasurer-elect Sarah Godlewski, who addressed reporters hours after the bills were passed. "We have talked about it repeatedly."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has argued throughout the process that the legislation allows the Legislature to work with the executive branch effectively by ensuring each branch of government is on equal footing with an appropriate balance of powers.

"We did have an election … I respect that fact," Vos aid Tuesday. "(Evers) is not the governor today and that’s why we’re going to make sure that the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be."

Vos told reporters he looks forward to discussing ways to work with Evers once he is inaugurated.

But for Evers and his Democratic colleagues, that wasn't enough.

Barnes decried the bills as a "dangerous way to govern."

"The four of us won those races," Evers said "The people of Wisconsin expect better from us as leaders in the Legislature than to pit people against each other."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.