The top Senate Republican acknowledged Tuesday a key benefit of moving the date of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary would be to give a “better chance” in the election to a conservative-backed appointee to the state Supreme Court.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, also said a so-called “extraordinary” legislative session could happen as soon as next week. It would be the last chance for Republicans to pass laws while Scott Walker remains governor, before Democrat Tony Evers takes office.
Assembly Republicans wouldn’t say what they discussed behind closed doors Tuesday for the extraordinary session.
Fitzgerald, speaking to reporters after Senate Republicans met privately Tuesday, acknowledged there are political ramifications to the debate on moving the state’s upcoming presidential primary, now slated for April 7, 2020. That’s also when Justice Daniel Kelly, a Walker appointee, could stand for election to a 10-year term on the high court.
Taxpayers also would pay a hefty price for the move. A preliminary estimate provided by state elections officials Tuesday said the cost of creating another statewide election in 2020 could top the $6.8 million estimate floated previously.
Fitzgerald cast doubt on whether the Senate could pass a subsidy package to help paper giant Kimberly-Clark retain hundreds of jobs in the Fox Cities.
“It still appears that the votes are not there as we stand here today,” Fitzgerald said.
He also acknowledged GOP lawmakers are considering changes to state law for Badgercare, the state’s Medicaid-funded health coverage program for the poor or disabled, to protect a Walker plan to create work requirements for certain childless adults. Federal officials announced approval of that plan in October, but for now, it is not written into state law.
Fitzgerald also said for the first time that GOP lawmakers are looking at changes — though it isn’t yet clear what — to the state solicitor general’s office, which represents the state Department of Justice in high-profile appellate cases. That comes after Democrat Josh Kaul defeated Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel in the recent election.
‘That’s a big problem’
Walker first acknowledged last week that there was discussion of moving Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary, though he declined to connect the move to the potential benefits for Kelly. State law now requires the primary to be held during the spring election.
Moving the presidential vote could help Kelly because Democrats are expected to have a wide-open fight for their party’s presidential nomination — and high turnout among their supporters — in 2020, while Republicans would have a quiet primary if President Donald Trump is renominated without serious challenge.
“Certainly there’s many people that think that Justice Kelly would have a better chance if there’s not really this competitive Democrat primary for president,” Fitzgerald said.
Kelly’s election could have big stakes for the ideological makeup of the court, which currently is split 4-3 between conservatives and liberals.
Fitzgerald also acknowledged concerns from local clerks across the state about moving the presidential primary. They have said it would create millions in costs for taxpayers to hold an additional statewide election. They also have warned it could create administrative nightmares by holding multiple statewide elections in close succession.
“It’s pretty easy to see the logistical issues it could create, including early voting in two elections at the same time. That’s a big problem,” Fitzgerald said.
While there’s no complete estimate of how much it would cost taxpayers, local clerks who administer elections have estimated nearly $7 million was spent to hold the spring election in 2016.
There could be several additional costs to creating an election for the presidential primary, according to an estimate provided by the state Elections Commission to the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal bureau on Tuesday.
New costs could include buying memory devices to tabulate and store results, the commission said. Typically clerks can clear data on those devices to re-use them. But if the presidential primary is moved to March, as reportedly has been discussed, that wouldn’t be possible because the state would be having three elections in close succession, Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe wrote.
Also Tuesday, Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans appear to have 10 or 11 votes to pass a refundable tax-credit package for Kimberly-Clark, which has said it could close a facility in Fox Crossing if it doesn’t get the subsidy. That’s well short of what likely would be needed to pass the measure, though it remains unclear if any Democratic senators will support it. The package passed the Assembly earlier this year.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement Tuesday that “it’s become clear that Republicans never intended this lame-duck session to be about saving jobs at Kimberly-Clark.”
“Instead, this whole special session has been a ruse to rush through more partisan bills, rig elections and consolidate more power in the hands of Republican politicians,” Shilling said.
State Assembly Republicans met for more than three hours behind closed doors at the state Capitol Tuesday. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, declined to explain what was discussed relating to the extraordinary session.
Other changes Republicans lawmakers have said they’re considering for the extraordinary session include writing into state law existing rules on the requirement to show a photo ID to vote, and rolling back some powers of the governor’s office, including by giving lawmakers more say over the makeup of the board for the state’s job-creation agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.