If you’re losing the game, change the rules,” Shawn Rossi

December 6, 2018; New York Times

The November 6th blue wave reversed the fortunes of Republicans in both Wisconsin and Michigan, where their control over all three branches of government for the last eight years allowed them to enact conservative agendas with little opposition. In January, the executive branches in both states will be led by Democrats, while the legislatures remain in the hands of Republicans. Fearful of losing full control, both legislatures have advanced legislation that would limit the power of newly elected Democrats.

In Wisconsin, the lame-duck legislature passed a package of bills in the dead of night that limit the power of governor-elect Tony Evers and newly elected attorney general Josh Kaul. Legislators also put new limits on early voting, which tends to favor Democrats by expanding the electorate.

But what the voters want is of little concern to Republicans, who have gerrymandered their seats to ensure they don’t have to face Democratic challengers themselves. Wisconsin Speaker of the House Robin Vos claims that the package of bills he pushed through last week have been under discussion for some time. Limiting the power of the executive, he says, “makes sure that we have an equal amount of power at the table.”

But few believe the bills would have been on the table if Governor Scott Walker had won a third term. Said Gordon Hintz, Democratic leader in the Assembly, “We’re here because you don’t trust Tony Evers and you don’t want to give up power. You are sore losers.”

The bills that passed the Wisconsin legislature:

  • Give the legislature the power to appoint seats to the state’s Economic Development Board
  • Limit the governor’s ability to ban guns from the State Capitol
  • Require the governor to have legislative approval to seek adjustments to federal and state programs (e.g., the governor could not rescind work requirements for Medicaid recipients)
  • Block the governor from withdrawing from the Affordable Care Act lawsuit brought by Republican states
  • Limit the powers of the Attorney General to approve settlements in lawsuits, to appoint a solicitor general, and to decide how to spend settlement money

“Wisconsin has never seen anything like this,” Evers said in a statement released to the press. “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.”

According to the New York Times, Michigan legislators have passed an even broader array of measures to limit the power of the incoming Democratic leadership, which happens to be all female. The gendered aspect of the power struggle there played out on Tuesday, December 4th, when protestors organized by the Women’s March Michigan filled the State Capitol rotunda.

Similar to the bills that passed the Wisconsin legislature, Michigan lawmakers passed measures that curb the power of incoming Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, and the incoming Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson. One bill strips the Secretary of State (the first Democrat to hold the position in 20 years) of the authority to oversee campaign finance issues. Also, similar to Wisconsin, GOP legislators moved to weaken the governor and attorney general’s ability to control the state’s position in court cases.

But Michigan legislators also used their lame-duck session to defy the voters on other issues as well. They reversed bills that would have raised the minimum wage and expanded paid sick leave, two measures that were supposed to appear on the November ballot but were removed when legislators passed bills identical to what voters were being asked to approve. Then, as soon as the November 2018 election was over, they gutted the bills and passed weak measures without voter input.

In a statement issued by the governor-elect’s office, Whitmer said, “This legislation needlessly divides and won’t deliver results. It won’t clean up our water. It won’t improve literacy or fix the roads.”

Michigan Democrats are organizing public protests for the week of December 10th, but they are hopeful that Governor Rick Snyder won’t sign the lame-duck legislation. Unlike Governor Scott Walker, who is famous for his partisanship and his successful effort to disempower Wisconsin’s unions, Snyder is considered to be a more pragmatic leader. A spokesman for the governor, Ari Adler, told the New York Times, “In this case, where the authority of different branches of government is affected, he will look at the bills as if he were continuing as governor. He won’t look at the bills based on who is in the governor’s office or which party they represent.”

That pragmatic approach might save the state from lawsuits that are already being threatened in Wisconsin. According to Constitutional law expert Robert Sedler of Wayne State University, many of the last-minute bills passed by the Michigan legislature violate the state constitution’s wording regarding separation of powers. Sedler told the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s Constitution “generally makes it unlawful for the Legislature to curb the powers of incoming officeholders in the executive branch.”

Not that the Constitution or the decisions of the electorate seem to matter to GOP legislators these days. The actions of the Wisconsin legislature “speak to a new brand of politics where you’re seeing a rejection of the social contract that exists with the public where we respect the outcomes of elections,” says Hintz. “It’s not really about policy. It’s about undermining our democracy.”—Karen Kahn

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