A Lame-Duck “Legislative Coup”: Wisconsin GOP Stages Last-Minute Power Grab Before Dems Take Office
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A Lame-Duck “Legislative Coup”: Wisconsin GOP Stages Last-Minute Power Grab Before Dems Take Office


This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world. We begin today’s show in Wisconsin, where
Republican lawmakers are orchestrating an unprecedented power grab to weaken incoming
Democratic Governor Tony Evers before he takes office. In an extraordinary move that some are calling
a “legislative coup,” Republican legislators have worked throughout the night to pass a
sweeping package of lame-duck bills to give power to the Republican-controlled Legislature
before Republican Governor Scott Walker leaves office in January. Republicans in both houses worked throughout
the early morning to gather enough votes to pass the bills. Both houses are still in session now. At 7 a.m. Eastern time, the Associated Press reported
that the Wisconsin Senate passed a measure to limit the power of the Democratic governor
and attorney general-elect and restrict early voting periods. Earlier Wednesday morning, the Senate and
Assembly passed a bill enacting a Medicaid work requirement and limiting the incoming
governor’s ability to change state laws that require able-bodied adults without children
to work in order to receive public benefits. On Tuesday, protesters took to the state Capitol
in Madison for a second day to oppose the power grab. Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! The Legislature is also considering measures
to move up the 2020 presidential primary election to help a far-right judge remain on the state
Supreme Court and allow the Legislature to sidestep Wisconsin’s incoming Democratic
attorney general in certain legal battles. This is Democratic state Representative Chris
Taylor speaking Monday. Ever in the history of the state of Wisconsin,
has there been an extraordinary session convened to take away the powers of a newly elected
governor and a newly elected attorney general? Republican lawmakers are making a similar
push for power with lame-duck bills in Michigan. These actions are in part modeled after a
Republican power grab in North Carolina two years ago, when the Republican-controlled
Legislature weakened the incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s ability to appoint
Cabinet members, among other actions. Well, for more, we’re going to Madison,
Wisconsin. We’re joined by Ruth Conniff, editor-at-large
of The Progressive magazine, which is based there, her most recent piece headlined “Wisconsin
Republicans Make Unprecedented Power Grab. The People Push Back.” Ruth, welcome to Democracy Now! Great to be here. I assume you’ve been up all night; at least
the legislators have. What is happening in the Wisconsin Legislature? Well, what’s happening in the Wisconsin
Legislature continues to unfold. But as of 4:00 this morning, the Legislature
had managed to pass the first of this raft of bills to grab power from incoming governor,
Tony Evers, before he takes office. And the bill that is going to go to Scott
Walker’s desk next is the bill that insists on work requirements for Medicaid recipients
and, more broadly, gives the Legislature the power to review all federal waivers that the
governor might want to seek to get out of, that Scott Walker sought. So that’s very significant, because it’s
putting the Legislature in charge of everything related to healthcare that might involve a
federal waiver. And that’s a whole, large, broad array of
possible acts that the governor might want to take. The background, though, I think what’s really
important to understand, is that here in Wisconsin in 2018 Democrats won every single statewide
race. And our Legislature is still Republican-dominated
because it is the most gerrymandered set of districts, legislatively, in the United States
of America. It’s been the subject of a federal lawsuit. A federal judge found it to be unconstitutional,
the map that was drawn in secret to lock Republicans into power in the state Legislature. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and
was turned back on a technicality. The Supreme Court found that the plaintiff
in the case didn’t have standing. So, this is going to continue to be litigated. Because of their gerrymandered districts,
the Republicans have held onto power in our state Legislature even as they’ve lost power
at every—in every statewide office. So they have called this extraordinary lame-duck
session in order to ram through a series of measures that basically decapitate the executive
branch and give the Legislature itself power over an enormous number of things, whether
it’s agencies, whether it’s making the attorney general come to the Legislature,
and specifically to a committee, a Republican-dominated committee within the Legislature, to get permission
to pursue lawsuits, whether it’s settlement money potentially in lawsuits. That’s all controlled by the Legislature
now. And then limiting early voting, which is very
significant, because Wisconsin had record turnout in 2018. And because of early voting, which the Legislature
had tried to cut off—and then a federal judge intervened and said, “No, it’s unconstitutional”—there
were enormous numbers of Wisconsin citizens who voted early. And the Legislature is now—and both houses
have passed this; they need to get together on it, but they have limited early voting
to two weeks. So, instead of six weeks, as it was here in
Dane County, where we had presidential-level turnout, they’re going to have two weeks. And again, it’s just an effort to suppress
the will of the people and to concentrate power in the state Legislature. Well, Ruth, in terms of the limits on the
governor’s appointment powers, could you go into some of the specifics of what is actually
happening with some of these agencies? Some of them, they’re actually packing with
more members, that the Legislature— Yes. —would have say over? Yes. So, for example, the Wisconsin Economic Development
Corporation, which has replaced the Commerce Department under Governor Scott Walker, it’s
a scandal-plagued agency that hands out gifts to corporations that promise to create jobs. The Legislature has taken away the governor’s
power to appoint the head of that agency. They’re still working this out. It still needs to be signed by Scott Walker. But this is where they’re going. And there was debate on it as I walked into
the studio. They plan to pack the board so that, until
September—and this is a recent redo. This is as of 4:00 this morning. They plan to pack the board with Republican-chosen
members, so that the governor can’t appoint the head of the board anymore and the Republican
Legislature controls the makeup of the board. After September, they say it will be balanced. They’ll be chosen by legislators from the
Democratic Party and the Republican Party. But they are—what they are fundamentally
doing is undoing Tony Evers’ campaign promise to get rid of this agency altogether, because
it has handed out tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to corporations that have
failed to create jobs. And one of the smaller provisions— Including—and one of those corporations
was Foxconn, as well? Foxconn. Foxconn, which is a big—yeah, it’s a big
company that our state has given an enormous amount of subsidy money to and really is a—was
a major issue in the campaign, because it’s a gigantic subsidy for this corporation that
is not creating a lot of jobs, and hiring people actually from Illinois, to make big
flat screens that will probably be obsolete shortly. There are a number of corporations that have
received tens of millions of dollars from the state of Wisconsin. In this bill that the Legislature is pushing
through right now, they remove the requirement that those corporations even demonstrate that
they’re creating jobs. That was a requirement that they were failing
to meet, and it’s the reason that the public is so, so up in arms against this Wisconsin
Economic Development Board. It’s going to continue to exist. The Republicans are going to pack the board. And now they’re going to take away the requirement
that the corporations they give money to, taxpayer money to, even show that they’re
even doing anything in exchange for that money. Couldn’t Foxconn well be the reason why
the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, lost—I mean, the touting of Foxconn coming to Wisconsin,
and then people recognizing how much it would actually cost them? And, Ruth, before we go on, for people who
aren’t familiar with Wisconsin politics—I mean, we were there in 2011, the massive protests
that were held on the Capitol grounds against Scott Walker going after the public unions—the
significance of what Walker is doing in just having been defeated in his race? Yes. It is really a replay of 2011, when we saw
those historic protests. What is happening is, similarly, the public
is shocked to find out that our Legislature, in the middle of the night, is ramming through
a series of anti-democratic measures. A lot of people have come out to the Capitol. There were more than 1,300 members of the
public who, when they found out late on Friday afternoon that this series of bills was going
to be pushed through in this extraordinary lame-duck session to limit the powers of the
governor and attorney general before they could even take office, turned out at the
Capitol, registered against the bills. They all—all of the people who came out,
all 1,348—registered against the bill, except for one—there was one person in favor—testified
all night long, in dramatic hearings, and then, when they were locked out of the chamber
by Republicans who wanted to keep the public out, were pounding on the doors and chanting. There was a huge rally outside the Capitol. It was very reminiscent of 2011. And the same thing is at stake here. It is really a cabal of people in our state
Legislature trying to seize power and consolidate power for themselves and override basic democratic
processes. In 2011, they ignored the open meetings law,
and they rammed through legislation without giving Democrats time to consider it. And now what’s going on is very similar. Eighty appointments. Governor Scott Walker has made 80 appointments
in this extraordinary session, since Monday, without any public hearings and without any
disclosure of their financial interests. So, he is packing the University of Wisconsin
Board of Regents, he is packing the Public Service Commission, he is packing the Wisconsin
Economic Development Board with his friends and cronies, before the new governor can come
in. And this is expressly against what was discussed
in the campaign. The people of Wisconsin elected a Democratic
governor who was very clear he was going to eliminate that Economic Development Board
and he was going to expand access to healthcare. One of the things the Legislature has done
is to make sure that the new attorney general does not have the power to withdraw Wisconsin
from a federal lawsuit that opposes the Affordable Care Act. So, there’s just a huge effort here to prevent
the will of the people from being enacted by this new administration. And, Ruth, what’s happening in Wisconsin
is not just happening there. In Michigan, Republican state legislators
have also introduced several bills designed to clip the powers of the governor, attorney
general and secretary of state, after Democrats took all three offices in the midterm elections. One bill would allow the state Legislature
to get involved in any state legal proceedings which historically fell to the governor and
the state attorney general. So it seems that if Wisconsin succeeds, there
are going to be other states following in its footsteps. And even in addition to that, I would add
that it is a national strategy. What we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Michigan
is a national strategy by Republicans, who are losing their hold on power after the 2018
elections. They see a wave that is trying to push back
Republicans. And the response to that is to try to undo
democracy. It’s to try to limit voting. It’s to try to, very specifically, bring
in private attorneys—and this is happening both in Wisconsin and in Michigan—bring
in private attorneys to replace the attorney general, who represents the public. And in Wisconsin this is an issue, and in
Michigan this is an issue, because they’re going to bring these private attorneys into
court to represent the Legislature, which is Republican-dominated, instead of allowing
the executive and the attorney general, who are Democrats, to pursue those lawsuits, as
they always have, to make decisions about which lawsuits to pursue and to show up in
court. And just now in the Wisconsin Legislature,
there was a Republican senator standing up and saying they ought to be able to hear from
both sides: A judge ought to be able to sit there and see the attorney general representing
the state of Wisconsin and a private attorney representing the Republicans in the Legislature,
arguing against the state’s position right there in the same courtroom—which is chaotic. You have one side that’s represented by
two opposing points of view. So, this is— Could you talk also— You know, this is, I believe, very clearly
a national strategy. In Michigan, it’s also interesting just
to note that all three leaders, incoming Democratic leaders in Michigan, are women, which is a
first for Michigan. Yes. You have Gretchen Whitmer, the governor-elect. You have Jocelyn Benson, the secretary of
state, and Dana Nessel, the attorney general. One of the first times, I think, in the country
anywhere that the top three leaders of a state are going to be women. All women, all won by big, healthy margins. And all are pushing back against the same
agenda we’ve seen in Wisconsin, which is the disempowerment of unions and the interests
of the wealthy represented by a Republican Legislature that is pushing through major
tax cuts for corporations and very wealthy individuals—also part of the package in
Wisconsin that we’re seeing right now—and that is trying to subvert public education,
pouring public money into private schools. That’s a major issue both in Michigan and
Wisconsin. So, undoing the public sphere, concentrating
power and cutting taxes for the wealthy. And you see the public’s response, looking
at what’s happened. Over the last eight years here in Wisconsin,
we see our roads crumbling. We see people losing access to healthcare. We see our schools suffering from massive
budget cuts. And the public has really spoken on this,
and they have asked to remove Scott Walker from office. They’ve elected Democrats at every level. And they’re ready for a more humane state
and a better future. And instead, what we’re getting is an enormous
number of private attorneys who the Republicans in the Legislature now want to hire to represent
committees and members of the Legislature and legislative staff to do their business
in secret, to hold negotiations that could be subject to attorney-client privilege, when
it comes to lawsuits that are filed against the state or decisions that the attorney general
would want to make but would have to consult with the Legislature about lawsuits that he
would pursue. So you see this secrecy and a lot of public
expenditure on private attorneys in order to concentrate power for these Republicans
and their wealthy friends. Ruth, and in terms of public expenditures,
could you talk about the effort to add another primary in 2020, change the date of the presidential
primary, and what the meaning of that is? Well, this is the one piece of this package
of legislation that did not make it out of committee. So, it seems that the Republicans have been
shamed into dropping their effort to change the date of Wisconsin’s presidential primary. And what’s interesting about it is, there
is a Republican incumbent judge on the state Supreme Court—and we elect our state Supreme
Court justices here in Wisconsin—he was appointed by Scott Walker, and he will have
to face the public in an election that will come up at the same time that we’re holding
a presidential primary. So what the Republicans did was to propose
moving the election for the state Supreme Court off the date of the presidential primary. So they would hold two elections, in very
quick succession, at enormous expense, with potentially overlapping early voting. This is the origin of curtailing early voting,
to make sure that you can’t go and vote for your presidential candidate in the primary
and also vote for that state Supreme Court justice. There was so much news about this and so much
protest, that it never made it out of the Joint Finance Committee. That doesn’t mean it won’t come up again
on the floor. And it’s starting to get light outside,
so maybe they won’t try to include that in their package now. But I think what that shows—first of all,
they were willing to spend $7 million, over the objections of nearly every single local
election official in the state, to separate these elections, for no reason except to protect
a Republican justice from facing a high-turnout electorate. And I think what it really shows is that public
pressure and really bad national headlines shamed the Republicans into ramping that back. And what we’re seeing now is—you know,
they have been readjusting these bills as they work through the night. They were still writing bills, rewriting bills
and trying to get their caucuses together at midnight, and at 4:00 they began to bring
out new versions of these bills. So, for now, it seems like Wisconsin is going
to go ahead and have one election in the spring that will include the presidential primary
and the Supreme Court race. And, well, I mean, these are legislators voting,
so in the new session, a new set of legislators can vote. Is there any way this could be turned back? Well, the Republicans, this is—I mean, this
is what you have to understand about Wisconsin. The Republicans, although they lost overwhelmingly—and
they lost every single statewide race in 2018—they held onto power in the Legislature. There’s been virtually no change in the
makeup of both houses of the Wisconsin state Legislature. And the reason for that is that although many
more Wisconsinites voted Democratic than Republican in 2018, the Republicans actually picked up
some seats in the Legislature because they have drawn a map in which they have gerrymandered
their districts so that they have packed all the Democrats together in one small district
and they have stretched out the Republican districts to include every Republican they
can find in their area. And this has been the subject of a federal
lawsuit. And it will—the federal judge ruled against
Wisconsin, said it was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, on appeal, turned it back
to the federal court. So this will come up again. And then, the big thing, the big threat for
Republicans in Wisconsin is that in 2020, after the census, they’re going to have
to draw new maps. And those new maps are going to have to pass
an executive who is a Democrat. So, they will not be able to do what they
did in 2010, which is to go into a back room in a law firm that was friendly to Wisconsin
Governor Scott Walker, draw secret maps and then ram them through, only to be found that
they’re unconstitutional. And that’s where I think all of the things
that the Republicans in Wisconsin are doing now will come back to bite them. And just like Republicans across the country,
you know, they’re facing a demographic wave that’s against them. They’re facing popular opinion that’s
against them. And they’re doing everything they can to
consolidate and hang onto power at the last minute. But, ultimately, they will have to face the
voters. And so, this Legislature is not going to change
in this session, and they’re going to try to run the state and take powers away from
the governor. But they are not—it is a bad long-term strategy. And I spoke to many Republicans who came out
to the Capitol to say they would never vote Republican again, after watching this kind
of self-serving behavior. So, they’re losing their own constituents
with these maneuvers. Ruth Conniff, we want to thank you for being
with us, editor-at-large of the Wisconsin-based magazine The Progressive. Her most recent piece, we will link to, “Wisconsin
Republicans Make Unprecedented Power Grab. The People Push Back.” When we come back, Rick MacArthur, author
of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. We look back at George H.W. Bush’s legacy
when it comes to the Gulf War. Stay with us.

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