Republican state leaders have struggled to publicly explain laws they enacted in a recent lame-duck session, amid a national onslaught of criticism from Democrats, nonpartisan groups and even fellow Republicans.
The critics largely have offered a unified critique of the measures, signed by Gov. Scott Walker last week. They’ve called them an unprecedented power grab by Walker and legislative Republicans that defied the will of voters, who elected Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. Both take office in January.
Republican state leaders, meanwhile, have given fractured — and at times contradictory — explanations of the measures, and the rationale for them. They appeared taken off-guard by the ferocity and bipartisan backlash to the proposals, observers say.
“It’s better to shape the message by being on offense, and they were on defense here,” Wisconsin GOP strategist Brian Fraley said.
GOP lawmakers and Walker have split on whether to focus on less-controversial parts of the measures, emphasize what they did not do, acknowledge concerns about them or simply deny the existence of the most contentious provisions.
How voters perceive the lame-duck laws could matter for GOP lawmakers in 2019 as they navigate a new dynamic in which they share power with Evers and Kaul. Republicans also hope to insulate the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court over the next two spring elections.
Some of the most controversial lame-duck laws curtail the governor’s power to guide economic development, halt litigation on the state’s behalf and make administrative rules. They also limit the state attorney general’s power to defend legal challenges to state laws.
GOP Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, speaking on WISN-TV in an interview that aired Sunday, insisted otherwise.
“There will be more legislative oversight in a lot of areas, but no power was taken away from the governor or attorney general,” Roth said.
Yet other Republican legislators have acknowledged that shifting power from the governor to lawmakers was part of the point.
When Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, first hinted the proposals were coming — addressing reporters the day after Evers and Kaul were elected — he called them part of a “rebalance” of power in the state Capitol.
“If there are areas we could look and say ‘Geez, have we made mistakes where we granted too much power to the executive,’ I’d be open to taking a look and saying ‘what could we do to change that?’” Vos said.
‘Republicans were surprised’
Roth, pressed by the Wisconsin State Journal Tuesday about his comments to Gousha, did not continue to argue the lame-duck measures don’t take away executive powers, though he said their scope has been overblown.
Instead Roth defended one way in which one of the laws curtails the governor’s powers: by removing the authority to instruct the attorney general to halt litigation being prosecuted on behalf of the state, a power now given to lawmakers instead.
“It’s allowing the duly-elected Legislature to have a buy-in on that process,” Roth said.
Roth said the public discussion about the lame-duck session is unfolding as if everything floated for possible passage was enacted. He noted some of the most contentious measures were not approved, such as moving the date of the 2020 presidential primary and allowing a legislative panel to appoint a private lawyer to replace the state attorney general to defend a state law challenged in court.
The latter proposal “absolutely would have been removing power from the attorney general,” Roth said. “If all those things had been done … I think the conversation would have been different.”
At least one rank-and-file GOP lawmaker expressed misgivings about the laws after voting to pass them. Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, told the Door County Pulse that they were “the toughest thing I’ve had to do” as a lawmaker, adding “honestly, I’ve just hated this thing.”
At the same time, Kitchens defended the laws as achieving a balance of power that he said went too far toward the governor during Walker’s tenure.
“I do think it evens out the power, which is what we’re supposed to have,” Kitchens said. “Again, people are going to say, ‘Why didn’t you do this when Walker was governor?’ That’s legit.”
Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University, said Vos’ initial comments about a power “rebalance,” among other comments by GOP lawmakers, showed them being relatively candid about the scope of the lame-duck session.
Later, Nolette said, much of the framing seemed to shift to contending “this isn’t that big of a deal.”
“Republicans were surprised at how much attention it ended up getting and how intense the backlash was,” Nolette said.
‘Two years to overcome it’
Critics have included the most recent Republican to serve as governor before Walker, former Gov. Scott McCallum, who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the laws look like a “power grab.”
Other critics included former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Milwaukee businessman Sheldon Lubar, a frequent campaign contributor who gave to Walker and also to some Democratic lawmakers.
Fraley, the GOP strategist, said Republican state leaders have a legitimate beef with how the media portrayed the lame-duck bills, arguing the measures were less sweeping than some reports suggested.
But Fraley said Republicans should have done more to explain what would be in the bills before fast-tracking them to a full legislative vote. Fraley said some of the GOP failures to publicly explain the measures may stem from disagreement between Assembly and Senate Republicans on what they would include.
“The Republicans, they put themselves in a position where it has been easy to make it seem like they were doing something nefarious when they were not,” Fraley said.
Walker has focused on the fact that Wisconsin’s governor will continue to have veto powers over legislation that is more sweeping than most state chief executives. Such powers are granted by the state Constitution; a law seeking to curtail them likely would not withstand a court challenge.
Walker went so far as to present a faulty Venn diagram at his bill-signing ceremony on Friday noting other powers the governor would retain. He said they include broad executive order authority, issuing a state budget proposal and appointing members of the Cabinet and other government posts including judges, district attorneys and sheriffs.
Walker’s diagram was widely mocked on social media, primarily because Venn diagrams are used to show similarities and differences between two things, and Walker was trying to imply his and Evers’ powers will be the same while neglecting to point out any differences.
Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said the input she has received from constituents has been overwhelming against the bills.
“Republicans knew that by voting for these bills and stripping power from the incoming administration, they were overriding the will of the voters and preventing the change that Wisconsin families voted for on Nov. 6,” Shilling said.
It remains to be seen if the lame-duck session affects how voters view the Legislature’s GOP majority. Republican strategist Bill McCoshen conceded “the process didn’t look good” but said it won’t be top-of-mind for voters when they decide on legislative races in 2020.
“I don’t think it will cast a shadow” over lawmakers, McCoshen said. “They’ve got two years to overcome it.”