Wisconsin Republicans worked through the night to vote early Wednesday morning on a lame-duck bill that would diminish the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.
Lawmakers in the state Senate voted 17-16 to approve a sweeping set of 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.
The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has signaled that he is likely to sign it. Once signed, the measures are "virtually certain to end up in litigation," Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul told reporters Tuesday.
The votes came after hours of delays that kept lawmakers in the Capitol overnight as Republicans worked behind closed doors to strike agreements on the proposals. The Senate was originally scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. Tuesday, with the Assembly following at 1 p.m. Both chambers met briefly at several points throughout the night, but did not return in earnest until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
"I’m not sure any of us can legally drive right now, we’re so tired, but we can be here on the Senate floor to vote on this stuff," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, as the Senate started debating the bill around 5 a.m.
Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers described the move as "rancor and politics as usual" in testimony previously submitted to the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, which advanced the legislation early Tuesday morning. In a CNN interview Tuesday evening, he dubbed the legislation a "hot mess."
"It flies in the face of democratic institutions and the checks and balances that are intended to prevent power-hungry politicians from clinging to control when they do not get their way," Evers said.
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.
"We did have an election … I respect that fact," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said 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."
Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said Wednesday morning that Assembly Republicans will work with Evers, but in a way that is "balanced" between the executive and legislative branches.
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.
The legislation would also eliminate the solicitor general's office. It would also allow lawmakers to hire private attorneys with tax dollars 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.
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.
The bill also limits the time during which early voting may take place to two weeks before an election.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, decried both the process and its outcome as "embarrassing." Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Republicans pushed the changes because they are "sore losers."
"Republicans need to stop putting politics and power over people and accept the election and incoming administration, and work, and listen, and lead together with Democrats to solve the problems facing our state," Shilling said.
In the Assembly, Vos accused Democrats of exaggerating the impact of the legislation in an effort to scare voters. In a matter of months, Vos argued, voters would see the changes passed by Republicans as "reasonable."
"You are so grossly exaggerating what is in this bill. It makes me sick," Vos said.
Just before the Assembly voted, Vos pledged to find ways to work with Evers' administration, but said that has to be done with each branch on equal footing.
"Tony Evers is going to be the governor," Vos said. "It's important for us to say, believe and support that."
Evers, in the CNN interview, said he will continue to try to find common ground with Republicans in the Legislature, but "this is going to make it much more difficult."