Despite protests at the Capitol and many hours of testimony against them, the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) approved three bills to limit the power of incoming Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, but did not advance a proposal to move the state’s presidential primary to March 2020.
The bills now go to the full Legislature today. The State Assembly is scheduled to convene at 1 pm.
The JFC heard more than nine hours of testimony from constituents, each person limited to two minutes. In that time, no one testified in favor of the bills.
Proposals approved by party-line votes around midnight would restructure the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to give the Legislature the authority to appoint most of its board members; remove the Attorney General’s authority to choose what lawsuits the state signs on to and give the legislature the authority to hire private lawyers to participate in lawsuits; and limit early voting to two weeks before an election. Also in the bills are policy changes on issues ranging from environmental protections to voter ID to taxation.
Governor-elect Tony Evers has said he would dismantle the WEDC, an agency installed by current Governor Scott Walker to replace the Department of Commerce. The agency has been dogged by mismanagement, missing funds and other issues.
Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul and Evers have both promised to withdraw Wisconsin from a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
The bills approved by JFC last night would make it difficult to fulfill those campaign promises be giving those powers to the legislature.
The bill that didn’t pass would have moved the date of Wisconsin’s presidential primary from April to March of 2020. Currently, statewide elections are scheduled for February 2020 — the state Supreme Court and local election primary — and April — the general election for Supreme Court and local races, as well as the 2020 presidential primary. Republicans worry that a surge of Democratic voters coming out for the presidential primary could hurt conservative Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly’s chances of reelection, so they’d rather move the primary to March, creating a third election in three months — a proposal that drew sharp opposition from county clerks, the ones who actually have to administer elections. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said 60 of Wisconsin’s 72 County Clerks opposed the move. That measure could be modified and reintroduced, but appears to be dead.
As the hearing dragged on into the night, hundreds of protesters gathered in the cold outside the capitol to express frustration at what they felt was the Republicans’ attempt to cling to power.
“On November 6th, the people of Wisconsin turned out in historic numbers and elected Tony Evers as our governor. In doing so, we made our voices heard, and we sent a very clear message that echoed throughout the nation,” said State Representative-Elect Shelia Stubbs, who will become the first African American to represent any part of Dane County in the legislature. “We are sick and tired of cynical, divided politics. Instead, we want politics that are responsive to the people. The people have voted. Let their voices be heard. We need people that are going to continue to stand up to invest in education, affordable healthcare, and access within our criminal justice system. As Wisconsinites, we should all be outraged today. We are saddened today that our voices and our votes are not being heard or counted. Instead, the Republicans do not want to respect our decision. I stand here today to tell you I will fight tooth and nail with you on this fight because it is important that our voices are heard.”
Addressing Assembly Speaker Robin Voss by name, Stubbs said, “If you wanted to be governor, you should have run for governor.”
Secretary of State Doug La Follette implored the crowd to come back in greater numbers.
“These hundreds of people tonight, tomorrow we need five thousand, six thousand to come here and take our capitol back and tell them to stop this crap,” he said. “Stop this crap they’re doing. Can you do it? I will be here tomorrow and I hope you will bring thousands of people to our capital. Thousands of you come here and stop what they’re trying to do.”
“Wisconsinites want us, as legislators and as people in this state, to come together and to solve the problems that our state faces instead of putting politics and power ahead of the people,” said State Rep. Lisa Subeck. “As such, Republicans should change course. They should work with our incoming administration. Work with Tony Evers, not against him. Work with Josh Kaul, not against him. Work with (Lt. Governor-elect) Mandela Barnes and (Treasurer-elect) Sarah Godlewski and Doug La Follette, not against them. And do what is right for the people of Wisconsin. It’s high time we do good for the people.”
In a press conference Monday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he didn’t know where the outrage was coming from. Fitzgerald and Voss both told reporters the proposals are meant to create more equality among the branches of government, but also that the proposals are explicitly intended to curtail Evers’ power and undermine his “very liberal agenda.”
The State Senate will convene at 11 am and the Assembly at 1 pm Tuesday to consider the bills. Evers has said he will consider all options, including going to court, to stop the changes from taking effect.