Gov. Scott Walker signed all three sweeping lame-duck bills into law in Green Bay on Friday, concluding an eleventh-hour effort by Republican legislators to roll back some of the next governor’s authority.
Walker, who has faced national scrutiny and calls from Democrats and some Republicans to reject the legislative package entirely, said during the bill signing he was approving the three bills in full, without line-item vetoes. Earlier this week, he said he was considering at least one line-item veto of the legislation.
During remarks Walker gave shortly before the signing, he dismissed criticism of the legislation as hype and hysteria, and outlined how he believes the bills improve stability, transparency and accountability to taxpayers and that Gov.-elect Tony Evers will continue to have some of the strongest powers of any state executive in the country.
“The overwhelming executive authority that I as governor have today will remain constant with the next governor,” Walker said in front of a faulty Venn diagram trying to show how Evers and Walker would continue to have the same powers to introduce budgets and veto bills, among other powers.
However, the diagram didn’t explain key changes included in the bills that limit Evers’ power over economic development, lawsuits and administrative rules.
Walker’s signature on the bills provides a victory to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who championed the controversial package that will strip some powers from the governor and attorney general, and limit early voting to two weeks before an election.
Vos in a statement lauded Walker’s signature on the legislation as an acknowledgment of “the importance of the legislature as a co-equal branch of government.”
Walker’s signing received immediate pushback from Evers, who in a statement characterized the lame-duck effort as “petty, political fights.”
“Today, Governor Walker chose to ignore and override the will of the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said. “This will no doubt be his legacy.”
At a news conference in Madison, Evers said he and his team are reviewing “all options” now that the bills have become law but did not provide detail and did not take questions from reporters.
Evers, along with other Democrats and some Republicans, including former Gov. Scott McCallum, have slammed the legislation as a power grab. Scores of protesters flooded the state Capitol early last week to urge lawmakers to shelve the legislation, to no avail. Republicans in the Assembly and Senate after negotiations that lasted into the early morning hours ended up passing most major provisions in the bills.
Republicans did, however, scrap a major proposal that would have moved the date of the 2020 presidential primary in order to increase the likelihood conservative state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly would win his election. They also scaled back changes related to the attorney general’s office.
For example, lawmakers originally proposed to allow the Legislature to override the attorney general by appointing its own counsel in cases where state law was challenged. Under the bills signed Friday, the Legislature will only have the right to join those cases alongside Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.
One of the most contentious measures in the package will take away Evers’ authority to allow the state to drop out of ongoing lawsuits and give the Republican-controlled Legislature the right to join ongoing litigation without the permission of the attorney general. Other justice-related measures in the legislation will dissolve the office of the solicitor general, which was created under the Walker administration and has handled contentious lawsuits.
Kaul in a statement slammed the legislation as a move to “diminish the impact of this year’s elections.”
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One measure will limit in-person absentee voting to two weeks before an election, which will affect several large municipalities such as Madison that allow voters to cast ballots up to 47 days before an election. Those municipalities were heavy contributors to Evers’ win. Republicans have argued the measure would provide consistency in early voting statewide, because municipalities have had more freedom in choosing when to allow in-person absentee voting.
Walker during the bill signing endorsed the early voting provision, arguing it is unfair for some municipalities to have shorter early voting time frames due to lack of funding or resources.
“I like early voting,” Walker said. “I just like it to be fair.”
The restrictions in early voting in the bill will likely subject the state to legal action, especially after U.S. District Judge James Peterson in 2016 struck down several restrictions on hours for early voting, elimination of weekend voting and restrictions on use of student IDs he deemed to be discriminatory in nature.
The liberal group One Wisconsin Now, which has challenged previous Republican-led restrictions on early voting, is planning swift legal action to address the early voting measures in the lame-duck legislation. The National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of a political action committee led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, will assist One Wisconsin Now in the action.
Both Holder and OWN director Scot Ross in a statement criticized the Republican legislation as undemocratic and unconstitutional.
“Their actions are grossly partisan, deeply undemocratic and an attack on voting rights. They must not stand,” Holder said.
Walker, who on Thursday announced a deal to provide consumer products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark with up to $28 million in tax incentives to keep a Neenah-area facility open, signed a provision that now prevents Evers from crafting a similar deal without the approval of the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee.
The legislation will also give the Legislature more seats on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board and will prevent Evers from appointing a CEO for eight months.
The three bills provide for a number of changes beyond the most controversial measures.
The first requires the Legislature’s budget committee to approve any major road projects that don’t get at least 70 percent of funding from the federal government, a move designed to draw federal funds away from smaller projects so they can be done cheaper with fewer strings attached.
It also makes changes to tax law and requires the state to provide a roughly $60 million income tax reduction stemming from an increase in state revenues after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer states could begin collecting sales tax from out-of-state online retailers.
The second bill requires all funds from state settlements be put into the general fund and gives the Legislature the authority to approve settlements instead of the attorney general alone.
It also makes a number of changes to the administrative rules process, such as prohibiting courts from yielding their decisions to state agency interpretations of law. It also clarifies that no Evers appointee to any office could assume the roll if the individual’s confirmation is rejected by the Senate.
The bill includes significant changes to the state economic development agency, which Evers has vowed to dismantle. It also codifies several voter ID requirements.
The most significant provision in the third bill codifies work requirements for adults between the ages of 19 and 50 without children to receive Medicaid.