Democrats on Thursday introduced a bill that would restore Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul’s ability to resolve lawsuits, a move they say is needed for him to conduct business for the Department of Justice.
The legislation comes amid a stalemate between Kaul and the Republican leaders of a committee that now oversees lawsuit settlements under laws Republicans passed in December.
The bill, which has almost no chance of being passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, reflects the growing frustration among Democrats at what they view as impractical, lame-duck laws. The laws are so named because they were adopted quickly after former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel and Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost re-election but before Kaul and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers took office.
The lame-duck laws require the attorney general to seek approval from the Joint Finance Committee, currently controlled by Republicans, to settle certain lawsuits.
Kaul said last week that each budget committee member would need to sign a confidentiality agreement to review and approve the cases he brought to them. But all of the lawmakers objected to doing so for different reasons.
“Last week, we saw firsthand the dysfunction caused by these reckless, ill-conceived and unworkable laws,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said in a statement. “The answer to the chaos caused by this unprecedented power grab is to repeal their constraints on the Attorney General and let him do his job and settle cases without legislative interference.”
The bill introduced by the four Democratic members of the Joint Finance Committee — Taylor and Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, and Sens. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, and LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee — would repeal the provisions of the law that requires Kaul to seek budget committee approval for settling or dropping lawsuits. It would also repeal the portion of the law curtailing Kaul’s authority to allocate settlement funds.
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The more than 8-month-old laws do not provide a straightforward procedure to approve settlements, and Republicans and Kaul have so far failed to agree on one despite corresponding for months on the issue. Kaul and the DOJ have warned the state could be at risk of losing out on millions of dollars in settlement money if officials don’t determine a way forward.
The DOJ on Wednesday rejected Republican committee members’ proposal for guaranteeing confidentiality when discussing and approving lawsuits: hiring a taxpayer-funded attorney to sign a confidentiality agreement on behalf of all committee members.
More than a dozen lawsuits, some that could net the state millions of dollars, are on hold due to inaction by the committee. So far, it’s not clear how lawmakers and Kaul will remedy the issue.
The standoff between Kaul and Republicans was prompted after he sought the committee’s approval to move forward with an unknown lawsuit potentially involving other states. Kaul last week told the committee it would need to act immediately but later said the deadline was no longer in place.
The development came as Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, reportedly proposed a $10 billion to $12 billion nationwide settlement that would resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits brought against it for devastation caused by opioids. Last week, a group of state attorneys general reportedly pushed back on the settlement, arguing it doesn’t provide enough money to satisfy them, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Earlier this year, Evers in his state budget proposed repealing most major provisions of the lame-duck laws, but Republican lawmakers rejected that provision.