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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signs lame-duck legislation that curbs his Democratic successor’s authority

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signs lame-duck legislation that curbs his Democratic successor’s authority

GREEN BAY – Outgoing Gov. Scott Walker signed lame-duck legislation Friday that will scale back the authority of his Democratic successor — approving the entire legislation after saying he was inclined to veto parts of it.

The move came a day after Walker announced a $28 million incentive package for Kimberly-Clark Corp. using powers the legislation strips from incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. If Walker had signed the legislation earlier, he wouldn’t have been able to cut the deal with Kimberly-Clark without permission from lawmakers.

The legislation also puts limits on the incoming attorney general and curbs early voting. Within hours, liberal groups promised to bring a legal challenge to the early-voting restrictions, and other lawsuits are possible. 

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At a signing ceremony in Green Bay, Walker contended the legislation did not shift power away from Evers, pointing to a poster with a design similar to a Venn diagram that he said showed he and Evers would have the same abilities.

“The overwhelming executive authority that I as governor have today will remain constant with the next governor,” he said.

The chart, however, didn’t show any of the powers that had been stripped from Evers.

RELATED: Twitter users have some things to say about Gov. Scott Walker’s ‘Venn diagram’

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Evers told reporters he will be reviewing “options” but did not say whether he would file a lawsuit.

“On Nov. 6, (voters) said, ‘By golly, we want a change.’ Well, just a few minutes ago Governor Walker signed legislation into law that flies in the face of those values,” Evers said. “I will be reviewing our options and will do everything we can to make sure the people of the state are not overlooked or ignored.”

In recent days, Walker signaled support for the main parts of the legislation but indicated he would strike out one or more provisions of it with vetoes.

But Walker said his aides determined he had the ability to issue line-item vetoes on just one of the three lame-duck bills he was considering — and not the most controversial one that took powers from Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The Wisconsin Constitution gives governors some of the most sweeping veto powers in the country, allowing them to strike out individual words in appropriations bills. 

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The signing of the legislation puts the final marks on Walker’s eight-year tenure. Critics, including some of his fellow Republicans, have said signing the legislation would stain his reputation, while Walker has downplayed the scope of the bills and said they would not significantly weaken future governors. 

What he hasn’t noted is that the measures mean Evers and Kaul would have fewer powers than all their predecessors, Republican and Democrat alike. 

The laws Walker signed — passed by Republicans last week in an overnight session just four and a half days after the package was made public — trim early voting; give Republican lawmakers control of the state’s job-creation agency; and hem in Evers and Kaul. 

The legislation also gives GOP lawmakers control of a litigation authorized by Walker to try to overturn the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Evers and Kaul campaigned on getting the state out of that lawsuit. 

“To state the obvious, it’s wrong to retroactively take power from the record number of Wisconsinites who turned out to vote this year,” Kaul said in a statement.

GOP gains control of job-creation board

The legislation will initially give lawmakers control of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board and allow the board to choose the leader of the agency, instead of the governor as is the case now. Under the legislation, in September the governor will regain the ability to appoint the agency’s director and the board will be downsized so that it will be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Evers campaigned on dissolving the economic development corporation and replacing it with a more traditional state agency to focus on job creation.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester has said lawmakers wanted to temporarily have control of the agency to try to show Evers it works well and persuade him to keep it as is. 

WEDC CEO Mark Hogan said this week his agency did not seek the change.

The legislation also will allow the Legislature to intervene in lawsuits when state statutes are challenged and use private lawyers at taxpayer expense instead of the attorney general’s office. Lawmakers want that power because they fear Kaul won’t vociferously defend the state’s voter ID law or other measures approved by Republicans in recent years. 

Lawmakers will also gain the ability to sign off on court settlements and get to decide how to spend any settlements. 

Lawmakers can block rules by Evers

Republican lawmakers will gain the ability to more permanently block state rules written by the Evers administration. Such rules are more detailed than state statutes and carry the force of law.

Under the new law, Evers will need to get permission from lawmakers to make substantial changes to health care and public benefits programs. Republicans sought those measures to prevent Evers from shelving work requirements and drug screening requirements. 

RELATED: Lawsuit looms over proposed limit to early voting in Wisconsin

RELATED: Republicans advance plan to limit Democrats’ power, drop proposal to move 2020 presidential primary

Vos and other Republicans put together the legislation after Democrats won every statewide office in the Nov. 6 election. By moving it through the Legislature during the lame-duck period, they were able to get it to Walker before he leaves office next month. 

“The will of the voters four years ago was to elect me to a term that ends January 7,” Walker said. “And so I don’t stop. Even though the media treats an election as though that’s the end of a term, it’s not.”

Republicans will continue to hold strong majorities in the Legislature in January — 19-14 in the Senate and 63-36 in the Assembly. 

The early voting limit will allow local governments to allow at most 13 days of early voting in the two weeks before election day. There are no limits now and Milwaukee and Madison — the state’s largest cities and its Democratic bastions — conducted six weeks of early voting in the most recent election. 

A similar limit on early voting was struck down by a federal judge in 2016 in a lawsuit brought by the liberal One Wisconsin Institute and Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund. 

Soon after Walker signed the legislation, One Wisconsin announced it would again challenge the limits, this time with the assistance of a group headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“Their actions are grossly partisan, deeply undemocratic, and an attack on voting rights,” Holder said of Wisconsin Republicans in a statement. “They must not stand.”

Vos has said he was confident the early voting limit would stand because unlike the earlier one, it would allow weekend and evening voting.

Other legal challenges — from Evers, Kaul or their allies — are possible. 

Laws signed a day after subsidies given

Walker signed the legislation a after he announced the plan to given $28 million in subsidies to Kimberly-Clark to keep a Fox Crossing plant open.

Under the new law, Evers would have had to gain approval from the Legislature’s budget committee to deliver the same deal to the Neenah-based international company.

Though Walker said Friday he could have “lived with” seeking the committee’s approval, Walker waited to sign the legislation until a day after the deal was announced — avoiding the new requirement.

He said he thought it would have been easy to get legislative support for the deal, even though an earlier version of it worth $70 million couldn’t get through the state Senate after nearly a year of trying. 

Walker minimized the significance of the lame-duck bills and rejected the notion that signing them would damage how he would be remembered. 

“These bills don’t change that legacy, and these bills don’t fundamentally change the power of not just the next governor, but any governor thereafter going forward,” he said. “They just make sure that we have transparency, accountability and we always look to protect the taxpayers and that we have a sense of stability going forward in state government.”

Walker was joined by two GOP lawmakers at Friday’s event — Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Rep. John Macco of Ledgeview — and other Republicans praised him for signing the legislation.

“Through his actions, he’s acknowledging the importance of the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government,” Vos said of Walker in a statement. 

But some Republicans, including former Gov. Scott McCallum, have been critical of Walker for considering signing the legislation. On Friday, Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich on CNN called Wisconsin’s lame-duck legislation an attempt to “reverse the election by manipulation.”

Walker’s second in command, outgoing Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, has been quiet on social media about the legislation, and a spokeswoman this week did not answer whether Kleefisch supported the measures.

RELATED: Former GOP Gov. Scott McCallum urges Scott Walker to reject lame-duck plans

The lame-duck fight in Wisconsin is similar to ones mounted by Republicans in Michigan and North Carolina.

In Michigan, lawmakers are now trying to gain the ability to intervene in court fights and shift campaign finance regulation from the incoming Democratic secretary of state to a bipartisan commission.

In North Carolina in 2016, GOP lawmakers stripped power from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper before he took office, sparking a string of legal fights that are ongoing.

RELATED: Influential Republican businessman Sheldon Lubar sharply criticizes Walker for lame-duck session

RELATED: Tony Evers says he will ‘take any steps possible’ to prevent GOP plan to take away his power

ELECTED OFFICIALS: Want to make your voice heard with your Wisconsin elected officials? Here’s how

The lame-duck legislation:

  • Limits early voting to two weeks. A similar limit was found unconstitutional in 2016 and Democrats have threatened to take legal action again.
  • Gives Republicans more say over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., including over its enterprise zone program that gives tax breaks to individual businesses. WEDC’s board, rather than the governor, would appoint WEDC’s leader until September.
  • Puts lawmakers in charge of litigation, allowing them to keep alive a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare.
  • Gives lawmakers — instead of the attorney general — control over how court settlements are spent.
  • Makes it easier for lawmakers to hire private attorneys at taxpayer expense when they are accused of violating the open records law or other statutes.
  • Eliminates the solicitor general’s office, which oversees high-profile litigation. 
  • Modestly lowers the state’s income tax rates next year to offset about $60 million in online sales taxes from out-of-state retailers that Wisconsin recently began collecting.
  • Requires Evers to get permission from lawmakers to ban guns in the state Capitol.
  • Bars judges from giving deference to state agencies’ interpretations of laws when they are challenged in court. That could make it easier to win lawsuits challenging how environmental regulations and other laws are being enforced.
  • Broadens lawmakers’ powers to block rules  written by the Evers administration to implement state laws.
  • Requires the Evers administration to report if the governor pardons anyone or his aides release anyone from prison early.
  • Forces Evers to get permission from the Legislature before asking the federal government to make any changes to programs that are run jointly by the state and federal governments. That would limit the governor’s flexibility in how he runs public benefits programs. If the Legislature’s budget committee determined the administration was not implementing recent changes to those programs, it could reduce funding and staffing for state agencies.
  • Requires Evers to go along with a plan aimed at reducing premiums for insurance plans offered through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces for individuals.
  • Channels federal money into a smaller number of state road projects, so that other projects could avoid having to comply with federal environmental and wage laws

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Patrick Marley and Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel reported for this story from Madison with Haley BeMiller of the USA TODAY-NETWORK-Wisconsin in Green Bay.

 

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