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Wis. bills would move election, restrict voting, curtail Evers' powers

The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Laura Zimmerman/WPR

The Wisconsin state Legislature's budget committee began a lengthy public hearing Monday afternoon on several wide-ranging plans that would restrict early voting, change the date of Wisconsin's presidential primary, and limit the power of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.

Republican lawmakers were met with chants of "shame" and "protect our vote" as they entered the hearing room from a spillover crowd gathered in the hallway. Those inside the hearing room periodically booed.

The committee was scheduled to vote on the bills late Monday and the full Legislature could pass them as soon as Tuesday. The bills were introduced for the first time late Friday afternoon.

Most of the focus since that time has been on the election law changes. When asked last week about the "upside" of moving Wisconsin's presidential primary from April to March, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, acknowledged it could give conservative state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly a better chance of winning.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Fitzgerald made clear that many of the plans were aimed at making it harder for Evers to accomplish his goals.

"Listen, I'm concerned. I think that Gov.-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin," Fitzgerald said at a press conference before the start of the committee meeting. "I don't have any problem highlighting that right now. I want people to understand that. That there's going to be a divide between the legislative and executive branch."

Earlier Monday, staff at the Wisconsin Elections Commission estimated moving Wisconsin's presidential primary from April to March would cost up to $6.8 million. Members of the commission, who are appointed by an even split of Democrats and Republicans, also voted 6-0 for a motion warning lawmakers of what they saw as the plan's pitfalls.

"Under (Assembly bill) 1071 as drafted, it would be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish an additional election date given existing statutory framework," read the unanimous motion. "We are aware of multiple conflicts not resolved with this legislation and are concerned that completion of mandatory tasks may not be feasible."

Clerks, who run elections, have warned the plan would create logistical headaches by creating overlapping timelines and voter confusion.

"Obviously, we consider it a waste of money and resources, but more fundamentally, we don't think we can do it," said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell. "I think there's a suggestion that we can buy our way out of this. We can't."

Earlier in the day, a lawyer for the liberal One Wisconsin Institute warned against the provision of the bill that restricts early voting, saying it would be challenged in court. One Wisconsin Institute successfully sued to overturn earlier restrictions on early voting in a decision handed down in 2016 by U.S. District Judge James Peterson.

"That would directly conflict with the injunction that Judge Peterson put in place for those reasons," said One Wisconsin Institute lawyer Bruce Spiva.

During the public hearing on the measure, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, defended the proposed change. Nygren pointed out many rural communities in Wisconsin have fewer opportunities for early voting than urban parts of the state, including Madison and Milwaukee.

"It's a fairness issue," Nygren said.

But Democrats on the committee pushed back on that, saying resources should be increased for rural communities so they may offer the same early voting hours as urban areas, if that is a concern. They also argued communities with larger populations should be able to offer more early voting opportunities, for logistical reasons.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called the proposal to cut early voting in urban areas an abuse of power.

"You guys are just going crazy here," Shankland said. "This is like 'Gremlins' after midnight."

While the election law changes have generated the most attention, other changes proposed by Republicans would significantly scale back the power of the Democrats who won statewide office last month.

One provision could prevent Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul from fulfilling their campaign promise to end Wisconsin's participation in a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The plan would require such a move to receive approval from the Legislature's budget committee, where Republicans hold a 12-4 majority.

Another provision would give majority Republicans substantially more control over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Right now, gubernatorial appointments make up a majority of the WEDC board, and the governor gets to appoint the agency's CEO. The plans under consideration in the lame duck session would give Republican lawmakers a majority of board appointments and the board would pick the CEO.

The proposals would dramatically scale back Evers' control of the rulemaking process, and concentrate more power in the hands of the Legislature.

Evers would also lose the ability to make the state Capitol a "gun free zone." Like other issues currently in the hands of the governor, that issue would also require legislative approval.

The Legislature would also gain more power to hire private attorneys instead of relying on the Wisconsin Department of Justice for representation. In addition, lawmakers would gain the power to decide how to parcel out court settlements.

While this week's session is not the first time one party has used a lame duck session to its advantage, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau said this was the first time in state history that an extraordinary session had been used to restrict the power of an incoming governor and attorney general before they take office.

"This is unprecedented, what is happening here," said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news.