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How Republicans are trying to strip power from Democratic governors-elect

Republicans are about to lose their grip on power in a number of states, and they’re trying their hardest to sour Democrats’ election wins.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker will have to pass the baton to Democrat Tony Evers come January, but before he does, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature has called for an “extraordinary session” to curb Evers’s power in office and potentially make it harder for Democrats to get elected in the future.

A similar tale is playing out in Michigan, where Democrats Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel, and Jocelyn Benson handily won the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state races, respectively. Michigan Republicans are trying to make sure the Democratic trifecta has less power to undermine Republicans’ legislative accomplishments.

The state governments have proposed a slate of bills that would touch everything from voting access to the judicial system. In Wisconsin, the proposals, some of which are expected to pass Tuesday, could limit Evers’s power to change policies around welfare, health care, and economic development, cut down early voting, and even allow the Republican-led legislature to hire their own lawyers to undermine the attorney general. In Michigan, a Republican proposal would guarantee the GOP-controlled legislature the right to intervene in any legal battles involving state laws that the attorney general may be reluctant to defend.

If Republicans are successful, it’s a power grab that would seriously undermine the platform on which Evers campaigned, and won.

Two years ago, North Carolina set the precedent for this kind of move, when the Republican-controlled legislature stripped then-incoming Democrat Roy Cooper’s power over Cabinet appointments, made the state’s judicial system more partisan, and ensured that the state’s board of elections would be controlled by Republicans in election years. Cooper has been in legal fights over the changes since.

It’s not hard to see something similar happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Republican’s power grab in Wisconsin, explained

Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Tony Evers Campaigns With Wisconsin Democrats
Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers has called Republicans’ attempts “desperate.”
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

In the span of four days, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature is trying to overhaul the powers of the governor. Last Friday, Republican state lawmakers unveiled a 141-page package of bills that would give Republicans power over key gubernatorial decisions and weaken the role of the attorney general, as well as proposals to limit voter turnout.

“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,” Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement.

They plan to vote on some of these bills on Tuesday, after only one day of hearings.

A quick rundown of what Wisconsin Republicans proposed:

  • Republicans want to cut down the number of early voting days, limiting it to two weeks. This would likely draw legal challenges; the proposal is very similar to a previous law that the courts struck down in 2016 for “stifling votes for partisan gain.”
  • There’s a proposal that would allow the Republican legislature to intervene in legal cases and hire their own lawyers, to effectively replace the Democratic attorney general altogether — the constitutionality of which is up for debate.
  • They also want to change the date for Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary from April to March, which Republicans say will separate “nonpartisan” elections from partisan ones, and which liberal advocates say is a play to protect conservative state Supreme Court candidates up for reelection. This idea has already raised the ire of Republican and Democratic election clerks across the state, who say it would be a logistical nightmare to hold three elections.
  • The changes would give the legislature more power over the boards of certain commissions, like the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), the state’s jobs-focused agency, which has come under a lot of scrutiny for giving the Taiwanese company Foxconn Technology Group $3 billion in tax breaks in exchange for their $10 billion factory — an investment that even the state’s Legislative Bureau said the state wouldn’t bring returns until after 2043. Evers said he wanted to get rid of WEDC altogether, as it has garnered a reputation for falling short of its jobs promise.
  • The proposals would limit Evers’s abilities to change the state’s work requirement laws around food stamps and health care, giving the legislature oversight over any federal waivers the state has received. Walker pushed for Medicaid work requirement waivers and waivers to drug test food stamp recipients.
  • Republicans want to stop Wisconsin’s incoming attorney general from withdrawing the state from a federal lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, instead requiring legislative approval to do so.

Wisconsin Democrats made a splash in 2018, finally unseating Walker and winning statewide races across the border; Democrat Josh Kaul also ousted Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. They campaigned on removing restrictions around welfare, protecting the Affordable Care Act, and creating jobs. But the legislature will remain in Republican hands, and those lawmakers want to make sure they maintain power, even under Democratic leadership.

“This is just the legislature, after losing the election somewhat surprisingly, deciding they don’t they want an attorney general from the opposing party,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin Madison. “That’s just nullifying the election results.”

Evers, the governor-elect, has called the attempts to curb his power as “desperate” attempts from people who want to “cling to control.”

“Republicans have to stop putting politics before people,” Evers said in a statement. “Wisconsinites demanded a change on November 6th. I stand with the people of Wisconsin, and we will be taking any steps necessary to prevent power-hungry politicians from overriding the will of the people.”

Protesters descended on the state Capitol in Madison Monday in an attempt to lobby state senators who may be more reluctant to sign on to some of these changes.

But unfortunately for the state’s Democrats, it all comes down to Republican legislators and Walker. Some of the bills already don’t appear to have enough support to pass, but any proposals signed into law will likely result in Evers staring down years of legal action to try to reverse them.

Michigan Republican’s push for more power under Democratic control, explained

Federal State Of Emergency Declared In Flint, Michigan Over Contaminated Water Supply
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder will have a choice: Will he agree to strip the succeeding Democratic administration of powers his team had?
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Wisconsin isn’t the only state undergoing the pains of a transition of power. In Michigan, the November midterm elections brought a total rebuke of Michigan’s Republicans.

For the first time in nearly three decades, the top three positions in the state’s executive branch will be held by Democrats. And in the face of that, Republican state leaders are using the lame-duck session to push forward government changes that would limit Democrats’ power in the state.

One bill would ensure the Republican-controlled legislature has the opportunity to defend state laws in court, even if the Democratic administration is reluctant to do so.

For example, Nessel, the attorney general-elect, has said she may not defend the 2015 law that allows faith-based adoption agencies to decline to work with same-sex couples, an issue that remains tied up in the courts.

Another proposal would shift the oversight of the state’s campaign finance law away from the secretary of state’s office and to a commission that would include an equal number of members from each party, appointed by the governor at the advisement of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties.

These proposals have already sparked partisan bickering. As in Wisconsin, Republicans in Michigan argue that these proposals are just about good governance, while Democrats point out that this sudden dedication to checks and balances comes only when the top three positions in the state will be held by Democrats.

“Those legislators pushing this law should be reminded that the people elect their attorneys general and their governors and such a proposal — should it pass — would have a dramatic and disastrous impact on the state of Michigan and its residents for years to come,” a spokesperson for Nessel’s transition team told the Detroit Free Press.

When good governance becomes a partisan play

Democratic National Convention: Day One
Wisconsin Democrats won the popular vote, but that’s not reflected in the makeup of the state legislature or congressional delegation.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

These laws aren’t on the books yet. But it’s easy to see how states like Michigan and Wisconsin could become the next North Carolina, where the Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been suing for powers that generations of governors before him were afforded.

The question is less about good governance than about when good governance becomes the priority. The intentions here are explicit.

This is about “protecting those reforms from an incoming governor who campaigned to wipe them out,” writes Matt Kittle of the MacIver Institute, a conservative Wisconsin think tank. “While political motives are clearly in play, the Republican-led majority does have the clear constitutional authority to call such a session and to pass laws that demand more accountability of the executive branch.”

This is largely a continuation of a familiar story in Wisconsin, where Republicans have enjoyed full control for the greater part of the past decade — a power they have used to strengthen their hold in the state.

Despite losing the popular vote this year, Republicans still control both chambers of the state legislature and five of its eight congressional seats; it’s the product of some aggressive gerrymandering that diverges from the state’s reputation as a political battleground. Democrats managed to break through in statewide races this year, but Republicans are adamant about making sure the platform that won in the state doesn’t play out.

“We know from history when Republicans do not like results of elections, they seek to change the rules of how everything else processes,” said Analiese Eicher with the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, which successfully sued the state over voting restrictions in 2015 decision.

Three years later, they’re preparing for another fight.

“We’re in contact with our attorneys,” Eicher said.

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