Wisconsin Republicans rejected the notion of a lame duck session by approving 81 appointments to state government and passing a bill in both chambers that would balance power among the three branches of state government.
Democrats called their efforts unconstitutional and political maneuvering and outgoing Republican Governor Scott Walker indicated he will sign the legislation into law.
The Republicans worked later than any other session since the Senate’s latest session in 1995, according to the Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk.
By 4 a.m. Wednesday, Republican legislators had successfully hashed out a 140-page bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 17-16 and the Assembly along party lines by a vote of 56-27.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester told reporters the legislation was intended to give lawmakers as much control over state government as the executive and judicial branches.
Following the overnight session at the state Capitol, Governor-elect Tony Evers criticized the move.
"Wisconsin has never seen anything like this," Evers said. "Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on Nov. 6."
Democrats nationwide threatened litigation, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder was the only sitting Cabinet official in U.S. history to be held in contempt by Congress for refusing to turn over documents related to the "Fast and Furious" scandal. Seventeen Democrats voted in support of the criminal contempt resolution.
Most mainstream media outlets characterize the move as a way to “remove Gov.-elect Tony Evers' power” and “block the new governor’s ability to write regulations.”
But Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement: "Wisconsin law, written by the Legislature and signed into law by a governor, should not be erased by the potential political maneuvering of the executive branch. In order to find common ground, everyone must be at the table."
Vos added: "I think that while some on the left and many in the media have tried to make this into some kind of a cause célèbre, it's a simple reality that we are ensuring by passing these bills that when we negotiate over the course of the next four years, we have equal seats at the table. The governor, with one of the most powerful veto pens in the entire country, still has the upper hand in all of the negotiations that we will have."
Several aspects of the bill limited the autonomy of the governor’s office and slightly restructured the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) board.
The bill keeps the WEDC board the same until September and designates the board to choose its next leader, a role previously decided by the governor. Republicans would initially have a majority of the board but after September, control would be split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Evers has said he wants to dismantle the agency. Republicans hope he will see the value of the agency over the next nine months.
The bill allows lawmakers to intervene in lawsuits when state statutes are challenged and the ability to hire private attorneys when they are sued.
The bill addresses several areas to prevent unilateral autonomy by the governor’s office, regardless of which party is in power, in order to include the Legislature.
For example, the bill limits the ability of the governor or attorney general from unilaterally withdrawing the state from a class action lawsuit it joined with 20 other states against the federal government, which if successful would overturn most of the Affordable Care Act.
It also expands the Legislature's power to block the governor’s authority to control state rules used to implement state laws and limits the governor’s flexibility over running many public benefits programs. It also prevents the governor’s office from designating the state Capitol as a gun-free zone without the approval of lawmakers.
When asked by the media if he would consider legal action against the plan, Evers said, "Everything's on the table." The liberal group One Wisconsin Now tweeted Wednesday that it was already in consultation with attorneys.
“We did have an election. Whether everyone here likes it or not, I respect the fact that Tony Evers is the governor and he’s going to be starting on January 7,” Vos said at a news conference. “But he’s not the governor today and that’s why we’re going to make sure the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be.”
On Tuesday, the state Senate also approved 81 appointments Gov. Walker had nominated to fill positions on state boards, authorities, and councils ranging from dentistry to domestic abuse to snowmobiling and Fox River navigation.