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Wisconsin Republicans approve bills stripping power from incoming Democratic governor

Tired members of the Wisconsin State Assembly heard final speakers early Wednesday before voting on a series of bills that stripped the incoming Democratic governor of some of his powers.
Tired members of the Wisconsin State Assembly heard final speakers early Wednesday before voting on a series of bills that stripped the incoming Democratic governor of some of his powers. Lauren Justice/New York Times

MADISON, Wis. — After a rancorous, sleepless night of debate, Republican lawmakers early Wednesday pushed through a sweeping set of bills that will limit the power of Wisconsin’s newly elected Democrats, including the incoming governor and attorney general.

The legislation, which Democrats vehemently opposed and protesters chanted their anger over, passed through the Republican-held state Legislature after hours of closed-door meetings and some amendments. The votes fell largely along party lines; no Democrats supported the measures.

“That’s what this is about: power-hungry politicians using their grubby hands in their last-ditch effort to desperately cling to power,” said state Representative Katrina Shankland, a Democrat, before the vote Wednesday morning. “All we’ve seen demonstrated today and over the past few days is a contempt for the public.”


The fight over power in Madison came after Republicans, who have controlled the state for the last eight years, lost the offices of governor and attorney general during the midterm elections. Tony Evers, a Democrat, defeated Scott Walker, a two-term governor who drew national attention with a brief run for president.

Republicans explained the moves to limit the authority of the governor as part of a long-needed change in the balance of power, which they said had become tilted in favor of the executive branch. Robin Vos, the speaker of the Assembly, accused Democrats of fanning hysteria and overstating the effects of the bills.

“You are so grossly exaggerating the words of this bill it makes me sick,” Vos said.

Democrats scoffed at that explanation, noting that Republicans had seemed perfectly satisfied with the balance of power when Walker held the role. Hundreds of protesters streamed to the Capitol as the debate went on over several days. Some carried signs with messages like “GOP Grinch Stealing Democracy” and chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” during one hearing.


Evers, the governor-elect, issued a statement on Wednesday expressing outrage, and accusing the Republicans of grabbing power against the wishes of the voters.

“Wisconsin has never seen anything like this,” Evers said, adding at another point, “Wisconsin values of decency, kindness, and finding common ground were pushed aside so a handful of people could desperately usurp and cling to power while hidden away from the very people they represent.”

The package of bills, which now awaits Walker’s signature, would limit early voting and, for the coming months, give lawmakers, not the governor, the majority of appointments on an economic development board. They also prevent Evers from banning guns in the Wisconsin Capitol without permission from legislators.

The bills would also require Evers to get permission from lawmakers to seek adjustments on programs run jointly by federal and state governments, such as public benefit programs.

And they would bar Evers from installing any political appointee whose confirmation is rejected by the Senate. (Current law allows a governor to renominate such appointees or allow them to serve as a provisional appointment.) The measures also include a provision requiring the corrections department, at lawmakers’ request, to publish online the names of prisoners pardoned by the governor or released before finishing their sentences.

“It provides more opportunity for oversight for a coequal branch of government,” Romaine Quinn, a Republican state representative, said of the measures.

But Gordon Hintz, the Democratic leader in the Assembly, said the legislation undermined the power of democratically elected officials. “We’re here because you don’t trust Tony Evers and you don’t want to give up power,” he said. “You’re sore losers.”


On state legal matters, the package of bills shifts more authority to lawmakers that would ordinarily be held by the state attorney general. A Democrat, Josh Kaul, was elected attorney general in November to replace the outgoing Republican.

Under the newly passed measures, the attorney general would need lawmakers’ approval to settle certain suits. Also, the measures would allow legislative leaders to intervene and hire their own lawyers — in addition to the attorney general — if the constitutionality of a law were being challenged. Under the new bills, the attorney general could no longer appoint a solicitor general to represent the state in major lawsuits, and would be restricted in how he spent settlement money, which lawmakers would now oversee.

As the debate went on in recent days, some measures were softened or removed by amendments, such as a proposal that lawmakers be able to completely remove the attorney general from some lawsuits.

On Tuesday, senators confirmed dozens of Walker’s political appointees despite protests by Evers, who called the last-minute installations an “example of putting politics before people.”