In his final days as Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker is working with the GOP-controlled state legislature to strip power away from the governor and the attorney general and shift it over to lawmakers.
The motivation for their plan isn’t secret: Walker lost his re-election, and the incoming governor and attorney general are Democrats. The state legislature, however, will remain overwhelmingly Republican.
What Walker and his Republican allies are doing shouldn’t be a surprise. From the time he took office, he has steadily amassed control for the GOP and quietly taken over state functions.
“Scott Walker may be on the way out of office for the first time in a quarter century, but his corrosive brand of politics lives on in his fellow Republicans,” said Scot Ross, the executive director of progressive advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.
In 2011, thousands of people went to the state capital and protested Walker’s proposal to gut public sector unions. But there were additional, less-noticed provisions in that legislation that consolidated Walker’s grip on the state government.
With the legislature’s approval, Walker handed himself the power to put political appointees in dozens of jobs that had previously been filled by nonpartisan civil servants ― including positions fulfilling open records requests. He also received sweeping authority to make changes to the state’s Medicaid program — which covered 1 in 5 residents — with virtually no public scrutiny.
“This is the sad end to a governorship that learned how to legalize cheating.”
The latest power-grab legislation could pass as soon as Tuesday. It’s being rushed through in a special session. A proposal to move the state’s presidential primary election already appears to be dead after significant opposition from election officials. The idea was that Republicans would be at a disadvantage in an important state Supreme Court race on the same day because Democrats would turn out in such high numbers to vote in the presidential primary.
But other measures are still very much on the table and appear headed for passage. Republicans want to limit early voting, limit the governor’s power over an economic development agency, weaken the attorney general’s office by taking away responsibilities, and prevent the governor from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit suing the federal government over the Affordable Care Act.
“This is the sad end to a governorship that learned how to legalize cheating,” said Mike Tate, who served as Wisconsin Democratic Party chair from 2009-2015.
Doug La Follette has firsthand experience with Walker’s power grabs. For years, La Follette was the only Democrat elected statewide serving in state government, as secretary of state. (He has been in office since 1983, although he also served in the position from 1975-1979.)
“They [Republicans] took away almost all my responsibilities, and therefore the staff, and left me with one person,” he told HuffPost. “They moved my office from a reasonable office that was accessible to a small office in the basement of the capital. There’s where I’ve been now for a couple of years.”
La Follette’s office, which once had 50 staffers, no longer oversees business-related functions ― such as notary duties, incorporations and trademarks ― that are typically housed in secretaries of state offices. He said it was part of the governor’s attempt to consolidate power, but also retribution for La Follette’s role in opposing Walker’s anti-union moves.
In other actions during his tenure, Walker dismantled an independent ethics commission, tried to give his office more control over the administrative rules process and refused to schedule special elections for open legislative seats (until ordered to do so by a court).
When Walker came into office in 2010, he tried to publicly strike a very different note. He objected to the outgoing Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, making any appointments.
Recently, however, Walker hurriedly named the outgoing Republican attorney general, Brad Schimel, to a circuit court judgeship in Waukesha County. He has made at least three other lame-duck appointments.
In 2010, Doyle and the Democratic-controlled legislature were also considering the renegotiation of state employee union contracts (which would have delayed the impact of Walker’s later anti-union measure). Walker said, “the contracts will tie the hands of the governor and the newly elected Legislature as they work to balance the state budget.”
Democrats, who failed to pass the contracts, have said that what happened in 2010 is not comparable to what Walker is doing today because they were considering unfinished business.
Walker’s office also told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the governor is simply “serving out his term and finishing the items he outlined earlier this year, including coverage for pre-existing conditions and saving family-supporting jobs in the Fox Valley.”
“It’s a great bookend for Scott Walker’s career as governor,” said Tate. “He started out divisive and misleading, trying to be like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a big deal,’ as I radically restructure how the state works and rig it in favor of those at the very top. And now, they’re doing the exact same thing and trying to make it as permanent as possible.”
La Follette also said the state needs to look more closely at partisan gerrymandering. Democrats received the majority of the votes in the state legislative elections in November ― but they’re still in the minority.
“If the Republicans would not have gerrymandered the state, we would’ve won control of the legislature, because the Democrats got 55 percent of the votes,” La Follette said. “But because of gerrymandering, we were not able to take any control of the two houses of the legislature. Now because of that, they’re able to do what they’re doing.”