Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul is warning Republican efforts to strip some of his authority are likely to embroil Wisconsin in a legal battle that will threaten state government’s ability to function.
Kaul and Gov.-elect Tony Evers over the weekend slammed GOP efforts to undermine them as Republicans prepare to push through sweeping legislation as soon as Tuesday tipping the scales of influence toward the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Among the many changes the bills would make to the Department of Justice include eliminating the solicitor general’s office; allowing the Assembly and Senate to cut the attorney general out of the process when state laws are challenged; requiring a legislative committee instead of the governor to approve dropping involvement in ongoing legal action; and putting settlement money into the state general fund, among other changes.
Kaul, in an interview Sunday with the Wisconsin State Journal, urged lawmakers to reconsider passing the bills introduced Friday he characterized as undemocratic, fiscally irresponsible and harmful for public safety.
“This is fundamentally inconsistent with how a democracy is supposed to work,” Kaul said. “If this passes it’s going to significantly impair the ability of the state government to function effectively next year because if it passes it’s almost certain to end up in court.”
His comments come after influential attorney Marc Elias, who represented an affiliate of One Wisconsin Now in a case challenging the state’s voter ID rules, said on social media Republicans won’t be able to approve a measure in the bills curbing the early voting window “without a fight.”
Kaul declined to comment on the likelihood of success of a legal challenge to the bills or whether he’d involve himself in any such challenge. He added his focus currently is to persuade legislators to defeat the lame-duck effort.
“This legislation is an attempt to undermine our democracy and should not be getting the support from anybody in the Legislature,” he said.
Most of the proposed changes to the Department of Justice were not mentioned by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald in interviews with reporters last week. In a joint statement Friday evening they said, “The Legislature is the most representative branch in government and we will not stop being a strong voice for our constituents.”
Kaul criticized their approach, adding the changes would significantly alter how state government operates and undermine the authority of the attorney general’s office.
The legislation, if passed, would likely prevent Kaul from pursuing one of his signature campaign promises: removing the state from its involvement in a multi-state lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. That’s because the bill would require a legislative committee to sign off on the action instead of the governor.
Kaul said if the state remains involved in the legislation, it will be using funds that could have gone to addressing the opioid crisis to attempt to remove protections for those with pre-existing conditions.
Kaul slammed the bill’s fiscal effect, since allowing the Senate and Assembly to intervene and appoint their own special counsel in some cases could tack on extra legal bills.
“It’s great if you’re a highly connected attorney, but it’s bad for taxpayers,” he said.
The bill also would direct settlement funds to the state general fund instead of separate settlement accounts, a move Kaul characterized as harmful to public safety.
Democrats girded for a fight and encouraged voters to speak out as Republicans prepared to move ahead quickly this week with their highly unusual and sweeping lame-duck session to pass a series of proposals that would also weaken Evers.
Beyond making changes to the attorney general’s powers, the bills up for a public hearing and committee vote Monday, setting the stage for legislative action Tuesday, would move the 2020 presidential primary to help a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and restrict early voting in a way a federal court already disallowed.
The moves give Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who leaves office on Jan. 7, one more chance to reshape state government before his term ends. While lame-duck sessions are common in Congress, they are unusual in Wisconsin. There hasn’t been one since 2010, when Democrats in power then tried unsuccessfully to approve union contracts before Walker took office.
Evers, who defeated Walker by a little more than 1 percentage point last month, called the measures an attempt to invalidate results of the election.
“It goes to the heart of what democracy is all about,” Evers said at a Sunday news conference held at a Milwaukee law firm. “I think it’s the wrong message, I think it is an embarrassment for the state and I think we can stop it.”
He urged voters to contact their legislators and said lawsuits were also being explored. He also held out hope Walker might stop the bills, but Walker has not voiced any opposition to date.
“His legacy will be tied to this,” Evers said of Walker.
Republicans worked on the proposals in secret for weeks, discussing only portions of their agenda after they were leaked to reporters. They didn’t make the bills public until late Friday afternoon, after they scheduled Monday’s hearing before the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. That panel, controlled 12-4 by Republicans, planned a vote immediately after the hearing was over. That would make the bills available for both the Senate and Assembly to vote on Tuesday.
Once passed, they would head to Walker, who last month voiced support for some of the ideas being discussed then, including moving the 2020 presidential primary from April to March. Democratic turnout is expected to be high in that primary, so moving it to March would help conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, a Walker appointee, who is up for election in April.
The bill would create three elections in three months: the February state primary, the March presidential primary and the April state general election. Sixty of the state’s 72 county election clerks have come out against adding a March election, saying it’s logistically impossible to administer so many contests in such a short period of time and it would cost about $7 million.
The legislation also would limit in-person early voting statewide to a two-week window before elections. Similar limitations were found unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2016 and Democrats have threatened legal action again.
Other bills scheduled for the lame-duck session would:
- Ensure Evers’ appointees can’t control the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the state’s private-public hybrid job-creation agency.
- Require state health officials to implement a federal waiver allowing Wisconsin to require childless adults to work to receive health insurance through the BadgerCare Plus program for the poor. The legislation prevents Evers from seeking to withdraw the waiver.
- Require Evers to get permission from the Legislature before he could ban guns in the state Capitol.
- Make it harder for Evers to enact administrative rules that implement state laws.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.