Sore Losers or Necessary Checks? Wisconsin Republicans Seek to Limit New Democratic Governor's Authority

It wouldn't be the first time lawmakers have attempted to strip a new governor of some power. But it is rare.
by | November 14, 2018
Scott Fitzgerald
"I’m not sure why there’s all this discussion we’re trying to somehow undermine the new governor," said Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin Senate majority leader. (AP/Jeffrey Phelps)

Robin Vos has been concerned about the expansive and growing power of governors for a while. Back in 2016, the Wisconsin Assembly speaker told me in an interview that he thought the legislature needed to reassert its authority in certain areas.

"In a world that is so driven by the executive branch, the legislative branch really should be more prominent than it is," Vos said back then. "My goal is that when I leave, the legislative branch is equally as important as the governor."

Up until the past week, the Republican did not act on that goal, in terms of seeking structural changes to the governorship. But the day after Democrat Tony Evers unseated Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker last week, Vos floated the idea of curbing the governor's power in a lame-duck session, before Evers takes office in January.

"I think it's unfair, very candidly, but they're going to do it," says Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat. "It shows that Vos is a sore loser."

Republicans took similar steps in North Carolina after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016. In Florida, there were rumors prior to the election that Republican legislators were preparing to strip the governor of some powers if Democrat Andrew Gillum won. (They're still counting votes in Florida, but Republican Ron DeSantis has the edge.)

These controversial moves have been painted by Democrats as proof that some Republicans are unwilling to abide by election outcomes.

"I can’t recall any similarly transparent examples of the losing side in an election moving so quickly toward defanging the winner," says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "While the history of political reform is full of plenty of examples of politicians rewriting the rules so that they can win the game, they rarely make it this obvious."

Details in Wisconsin have not been hashed out, but Vos and other Republican legislators, who control both chambers in Wisconsin, have outlined some ways they might seek to take back authority from the governor.

"Maybe we made some mistakes giving too much power to Gov. Walker, and I'd be open to looking at that to see if there are areas we should change that," Vos told reporters last week.

They want to block Evers from making changes to the state's voter ID law. They might change the makeup of the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, giving the governor less influence over an agency that Evers said during the campaign should be eliminated. They are also considering ways to pare back the governor's ability to set administrative rules in carrying out new laws. Those powers were expanded shortly after Walker took office in 2011.

Republican legislators describe these potential moves as a necessary "rebalancing" of power between the branches.

"I’m not sure why there’s all this discussion we’re trying to somehow undermine the new governor," Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the state Senate majority leader, told reporters last week. "That’s not the case at all. I think there’s some stuff that’s going to be reasonable."

Democrats aren't buying it.

"When Tony came out, even on election night, he talked about ways that we're going to work together," says Mandela Barnes, Evers' running mate and the newly elected lieutenant governor. "The first statement from Vos is, we're going to limit your ability to do so. That's just not how government should work. It shouldn't be vindictive. It shouldn't be as purely political as they're trying to make it."

Peverill Squire, an expert on legislatures at the University of Missouri, says this is "more evidence that political norms continue to be under attack. Most voters are apt to see them as 'sore loser' power grabs, and that may ultimately rebound against the party that pursues them."

Republicans certainly don't have voters' approval on this in North Carolina. Last week, voters there rejected two ballot measures, referred by the legislature, that would have limited the governor's appointment authority when it came to judicial vacancies and the state elections board. The state's five living ex-governors (two Republicans and three Democrats) opposed the proposed measures.

These tactics aren't being pursued everywhere. In the other two states where new Democratic governors will face legislatures controlled by Republicans -- Kansas and Michigan -- GOP legislators have expressed opposition to portions of the new governors' agendas but haven't announced any attempts to change the formal authority of the position.

Evers, the state's superintendent of public instruction, has grown used to fighting with Wisconsin Republicans over his authority. In 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 law, passed shortly after Walker's election, which gave the governor the power to approve new administrative rules did not apply to Evers' department, since he was independently elected. In June, the court sided again with Evers in a related dispute regarding his agency's ability to select its own legal representation.

So far, Walker has remained quiet about whether he'll sign any bills affecting the powers of his office. He said Wednesday that he's avoiding all press questions to give Evers the chance to talk about his own agenda.

GOP state Sen. Luther Olsen, who has worked closely with Evers on education matters, told the Associated Press that he'd support changes to the governor's authority, even though, he conceded, "the optics probably look bad."

Whether the types of changes Republicans are considering are needed curbs on the executive branch or a partisan attack on a newly elected governor, they certainly won't help foster a spirit of cooperation in a state where power will soon be divided. As Squire, the Missouri professor, notes, Wisconsin’s governor enjoys the most veto power in the nation. Legislators run the risk of facing significant retribution from Evers.

For his part, Lt. Gov.-elect Barnes, says, "limiting the power of a branch of government just because you don't agree with them, just because they're not of your political party, does not bode well for society."

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