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Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee approved a sweeping series of bills to narrow the window for early voting and strip the executive branch of several powers, capping a day of heated public testimony and protests over the plans. The bills deal with a slew of policy issues, from transportation to taxes, but they are largely aimed at prohibiting Gov.-elect Tony Evers from rolling back several Walker administration policies.

The committee voted 12 to 4, along party lines, on four bills late Monday night but stopped short of voting on an especially controversial bill that would have changed the 2020 presidential primary date, a move that would have benefited Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, who is a part of the court's conservative wing and is up for re-election that year. That plan is likely dead though could be resurrected on the Senate or Assembly floor. 

Every Democrat opposed the measures.

The proposals are set to come to the Assembly and Senate floors Tuesday, where they will be voted on by lawmakers before being considered by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Manitowoc, who co-chairs the committee, said that of the 45 proposals the committee voted on, nearly half were considered by the Legislature previously or fortifies rules that already exist.

“Many of these proposals have already been vetted,” he said.

Nygren emphasized the bills were needed to “equalize power” and enforce the balance of each branch of state government.

“It’s my belief these measures move us in that direction,” he said. He noted that Republicans may have made mistakes in not enforcing balance between branches before November’s election.

“We realize that we are setting a precedent here and making change that are going to affect future Republican governors as well,” he said.

Democrats blasted the bills.

“Never before in the history of our state have we seen an extraordinary session that takes away powers of a newly elected governor to this extent,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

The votes came after a hearing that lasted 12 hours split into two sessions: One focused on public comments and the other on lawmaker questions and comments about the bills. The bills would fortify legislative oversight and curb the governor's power in a number of ways, including governance of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, by expanding the number of people appointed to it by the Legislature. They would also preclude Evers from overturning a Walker policy requiring Medicaid recipients to hold a job.  

The bills would eliminate the Solicitor General’s office at the state Department of Justice, and allow lawmakers to hire private attorneys at taxpayer expense.

The measures also effectively bar the attorney general from withdrawing the state from a federal lawsuit aiming to nullify the federal Affordable Care Act, a central tenet of Evers' campaign and a key issue for many voters. The Legislature is also considering a measure that Republicans say would protect citizens with pre-existing medical conditions. 

People packed the chamber of the Joint Finance Committee, the hallways leading into it and overflow room on the 4th floor of the state Capitol Monday afternoon.

In the beginning hours of the hearing, the crowd grew angry, chanting and banging on walls, prompting law enforcement to lock the doors of the committee chamber. Following warnings from Nygren, police officers removed several people throughout the day whose shouts interrupted questions and comments from lawmakers.

Outside the Capitol Monday evening, hundreds gathered outside in the darkness to protest. As the day wore on indoors, public comments and questions were peaceful and mostly polite. Hundreds of people from across the state signed up to speak and dozens waited for hours to address lawmakers.

Most all who spoke were virulently opposed to the plans and asked lawmakers to reject them.

Passage of the bills, many argued, would essentially nullify their votes last month — a frequent assertion that drew hand waves from fellow onlookers who waited for their turn to speak. Throughout the evening, comments took on a spectrum of tones: from anger about the present, to hope for the future, to musings on the meaning of representation and democratic government.

Greg St. Arnold of Milwaukee asked lawmakers to consider their role as legislators broadly, not only advocating for their own partisan policies, but to nurture the broader democratic landscape.

“Progress in our democracy comes incrementally, often slowly, by gaining the consent of those governed,” he said. “Their consent and the social cohesion on which their consent rests is fundamental to a free and functioning society. In a time when we speak more and more of polarization …I see the opportunity to uphold this understanding.”

Sheila Plotkin of Madison echoed many commenters and said lawmakers were disrespecting voters.

“You have perverted our Democratic process," she said, and "encouraged more dark money, tried to weaken our open records law, acted without regard to environmental dangers, made voting harder and then made it clear that our votes count only if they match your agenda.”

Tom Poppe, a former employee of the Legislative Audit Bureau, said lawmakers should instead try to work with the incoming governor.

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“Tony Evers was elected to try to create an environment that was bipartisan,” he said. “These bills presented by the Republican leadership are not to help Wisconsin but rather to help the Republican Party.”

Randy Bryce, the former Democratic candidate who failed in his bid to represent the 1st Congressional District last month, said he has accepted the results of the election and said GOP legislators should, too.

“This isn’t a bill. This is a coup,” he said. “This is an attack on democracy and I’m sick of coming here time after time fighting for a fair and just society.”

Several municipal clerks also spoke, emphasizing what the Wisconsin Elections Commission had affirmed hours earlier: moving the state’s presidential primary to March would create a significant and costly challenge for local clerks who would have to purchase new equipment and administer and confirm three elections in February, March and April. Costs were estimated at $7 million. 

Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said that moving the election date would “cause an extreme number of issues,” noting that administering and certifying three elections back-to-back would be difficult.

“The first is increased cost to taxpayers but I think those numbers are estimated to be extremely low,” she said. “Our elections and election equipment are only designed to run one election at a time.”

Democrats made a motion to adjourn the hearing after public comment, with Taylor and others arguing that time was needed to sufficiently examine the bill. The motion was rejected by Republicans.

After strongly criticizing the plans over the weekend and vowing to fight them, Evers submitted written testimony to the committee, calling the session an unfettered attempt to “override and ignore what the people of Wisconsin asked for in November.”

“This is rancor and politics as usual. 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 wrote.  

He also asked them to consider how both parties could work together. 

“I believe there is a lot of common ground we can find. I remain hopeful that we can rise to the occasion,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers have called the extraordinary session “unprecedented," an assertion Republicans have disputed. Though extraordinary sessions are somewhat uncommon, their occurrence in the state Legislature following an election dates back to at least the 1920s, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

But the policy proposals included in this year’s session are unprecedented, according to the LFB. There has not been a past extraordinary session that has dealt with the sweeping changes to executive branch authority, nor moved election dates or changed early voting procedures.

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.