Wisconsin Republicans mull limiting governor-elect's power

Nov. 9, 2018

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald held a press conference Thursday Nov. 8, 2018 after a meeting of the Senate Republican caucus in the State Capitol in Madison, Wis.

MADISON Wisconsin Republican lawmakers on Thursday privately discussed ways they could limit the incoming Democratic governor before he takes office, which the governor-elect described as a "desperate attempt to cling to power."

Tony Evers, who narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, said GOP legislative leaders should "stop any and all attempts to play politics and weaken the powers of the governor's office." Evers said in a statement that making those moves before he takes office Jan. 7 would be a "complete violation of the separation of powers in our system."

Senate Republicans met privately Thursday to discuss ways to reduce Evers' powers, a day after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he, too, would be open to doing that. Republicans have been vague about their specific plans.

Walker hasn't said whether he would sign any such bills into law. His spokeswoman, Amy Hasenberg, didn't immediately reply to a message seeking comment. Such a move has precedent: Republicans in North Carolina two years ago limited the number of appointments that the Democratic governor-elect, Roy Cooper, could make once he took office.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald downplayed what Republicans were considering, saying they were primarily focused on making sure the rules for how some laws are enforced wouldn't be changed, including the state's voter photo ID requirement.

He said Republicans are also looking at reconstituting boards to make sure they have equal representation, but didn't specify which ones.

Fitzgerald also said Republicans would look to limit the governor's authority over the process of enacting rules designed to carry out laws the Legislature passes. The Legislature increased Walker's authority over that process shortly after he took office in 2011. Republicans have been in complete control of the Legislature and governor's office since that year.

"I'm not sure why there's all this discussion we're trying to somehow undermine the new governor," Fitzgerald told reporters. "That's not the case at all. I think there's some stuff that's going to be reasonable."

Former Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle told The Associated Press on Thursday that he hopes Walker will protect the powers of the office for his successor, Evers.

"There's some obligation on a governor in that situation to not just be a partisan player anymore and be a protector of the office, and I hope the governor does that," Doyle said. "I think that's how many governors would see it. You're no longer just a party operative, you're somebody who has to look at the bigger picture."

The lame duck session, which legislative leaders called at Walker's request during the campaign, was supposed to be exclusively about approving a $100 million tax break bill for paper products giant Kimberly-Clark Corp. The incentive package is designed to save a Fox Crossing plant that employs about 500 people. Republicans still don't have the votes to pass it and its future is uncertain.

While that measure is in limbo, Republicans are talking about doing much more, including kneecapping Evers before he takes office. But Fitzgerald said that because of the governor's substantial veto power, Evers will be able to keep the Legislature "in check."

"It's equal, balanced government," he said. "We'll respect Tony Evers like we have any other governor and we'll work with him."

Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the state Senate for the lame duck session, giving them little margin to lose votes. But starting in January, their majority will increase to 19-14.

Evers said in his statement that he wants to work with Republicans and Democrats on issues, including health care, education and infrastructure.

Doyle was in office the last time there was divided government, in 2007 and 2008, when Republicans controlled the Assembly and Democrats had the majority in the Senate. Doyle said he anticipates that Evers will "make every effort to reach across the aisle" and work with Republicans.

"He should approach them in good faith with an open hand," Doyle said.

Republican Sen. Luther Olsen is chairman of the Senate's Education Committee and has worked closely over the years with Evers, the state superintendent since 2009. Olsen said he'd be open to scaling back the powers of the governor but acknowledged it would not look good for Republicans to undermine Evers before he takes office.

"The problem is it just looks like you're trying to tie the hands of the new governor," Olsen said. "The optics problem looks bad."


Conservationists hope Evers will re-energize DNR

MADISON - Conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts hope Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers will re-energize Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources after years of cuts under Republican Scott Walker, counting on him to return the agency to a science-based footing and get tougher on polluters and chronic wasting disease.

Evers will have broad authority to make sweeping changes at the department after he takes office in January, starting with appointing a new secretary and replacing the executive staff. He'll be able to propose even more substantive changes in his 2019-21 executive budget, including more money for the agency and restoring axed positions.

"(An Evers administration) will significantly change how the current conservation and environmental laws are implemented and enforced," George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson. "You're going to see morale immediately go up among staff that were uncomfortable with some of the positions taken by DNR over the last eight years. DNR staff right now just keep their heads down."

Republicans have long vilified the department as an impediment to business expansion. Walker and GOP lawmakers transformed the agency over his eight years in office.

Walker's four budgets drained nearly $90 million from the department, cut nearly 250 positions, including half of the agency's science researchers, scaled back land purchases and cut support for state parks, leaving them to survive on user fees.

Under Walker's leadership, the agency scrubbed language from its website stating human activities are causing climate change. State auditors in 2016 discovered the department wasn't following its own policies for policing pollution from factory farms.

Walker signed bills easing regulations for iron and allowing sulfide mining, sending environmentalists into an outrage. DNR officials also have decided to follow Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel's legal opinion that they lack the authority to consider high-capacity wells impact on nearby waters, leading to criticism that the wells are sucking lakes and streams dry.

Walker also took a hands-off approach to chronic wasting disease, bowing to deer hunters upset with the DNR's goal of thinning the state herd to slow the disease's spread.

Evers' agenda for the department is unclear. Campaign spokesman Sam Lau didn't immediately reply to an email seeking details. Evers said during the campaign that he wants to re-inject science into the agency and review air permits for Foxconn Technology Group's massive flat-screen plant under construction in Mount Pleasant, but he didn't emphasize environmental and outdoor issues.

His website talks vaguely about plans to replace lead pipes, creating new outdoor opportunities and supporting the Paris climate change accords but offers few details.

Nick Novak, a spokesman for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group and a powerful advocate for business expansion, declined to comment on the ramifications of an Evers administration. A message left with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which advocates for factory farms, wasn't immediately returned.

Conservationists have their wish lists, though.

Larry Bonde, chairman of the Conservation Congress, a group of sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy, said he hopes Evers' DNR will consider raising hunting and fishing fees, which haven't increased in years even though the agency needs more revenue. He'd also like to see Evers ban baiting and feeding deer in hopes of slowing CWD and allow department experts to testify about bills after largely remaining silent during Walker's tenure.

Clean Wisconsin lobbyist Amber Meyer Smith said she wants Evers to focus on reducing groundwater contamination, address climate change and promote clean energy sources.

Meyers predicted Evers will appoint DNR executives with natural resource management experience, ramp up education about CWD and call for testing more deer for the disease.

The new governor also will likely renew the DNR's land stewardship program and push the department to stiffen pollution permit requirements, Meyers said. He also expects Evers will block any Republican bills relaxing environmental regulations while clamping down on polluters, especially with Democrat Josh Kaul backing him up as the state's new attorney general.

"You're going to see the science of air, water, environmental quality come back to the agency," former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle said.

Republican Fitzgerald re-elected as leader as GOP gains seat

 Senator Scott Fitzgerald, right, smiles after being elected to the post of Senate Majority Leader during a meeting of the Senate Republican caucus in the State Capitol Thursday Nov. 8, 2018 in Madison, Wis.
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis.  Wisconsin state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald has been re-elected as majority leader, two days after Republicans picked up a seat over Democrats.

Fitzgerald, of Juneau, was the unanimous choice Thursday and ran unopposed for the leadership position he's held since 2011 when Republicans took control away from Democrats.

Republicans will return in 2019 with a 19-14 majority. But they will now have to work with a Democratic governor who has the power to veto any bills passed by the Legislature.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse, was re-elected as minority leader. Shilling says Democrats are looking forward to working together with Evers.

Assembly Republicans planned to meet Monday to vote on their leaders.

The Legislature plans to return for a lame duck session later this month or next.

Democrat claims victory in Assembly race after new totals

MILWAUKEE  A suburban Assembly seat appears to have swung to the Democrat after the city of Wauwatosa discovered that not all its election results had been reported.

Democrat Robyn Vining declared victory Thursday after the updated totals showed her with a 132-vote margin over Republican Matt Adamczyk, out of roughly 33,000 ballots cast.

Wauwatosa said Milwaukee County reported it hadn't received votes from two wards. The updated and verified totals gave Vining a net gain of 153 votes, enough to push her into the lead in the tight race.

Adamczyk said he would wait until an official canvass is completed to decide whether to pursue a recount.

If the result is confirmed for Vining, it would leave Republicans with a 63-36 edge in the chamber.

Associated Press