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Wisconsin's GOP Speaker on Power Grabs, Tony Evers and NCSL's Future

Republican Robin Vos, who engineered the lame-duck bills to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, maintains that the maneuver was a nonpartisan attempt to restore balance between the branches.

Robin Vos
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos
(AP/Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal)
This month, Wisconsin Republicans pushed through legislation that weakens executive branch authority in certain ways while giving the legislature more power. The legislature remains controlled 63-36 by Republicans after the election, but GOP Gov. Scott Walker was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers.

A similar package was passed in Michigan, where the same partisan dynamics apply. These efforts have been criticized by Democrats as partisan "power grabs." 

Governing spoke with Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin General Assembly and the architect of the power-shifting package, which Walker signed on Friday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You've said that "the extraordinary session was merely an effort to ensure that in divided government, every branch of government has an equal seat at the table." Why aren't 63 votes enough to guarantee you a seat at the table?

Over the course of the past 30 years, under both Republicans and Democrats, both sides have naturally ceded power to the executive. I have tried since I became speaker in 2013 not to allow that to happen. 

Luckily, I had a really good relationship with Gov. Walker, where he did not do things unilaterally. He would always consult with the legislature and seek our input and usually, in almost every case, our support. Gov. Walker had the ability to unilaterally apply for waivers to impose work requirements on able-bodied Medicaid recipients. I thought -- and he agreed -- that we should have legislation.

We are doing the same thing we've done for eight years. We are simply codifying what we have done, as opposed to the last 30 years, where there was an executive with too much authority making too many decisions unilaterally.

The only opportunity the legislature has to hit the reset button is usually when a governor is going out and usually when it's the same party.

We spoke nearly three years ago and you told me that one of your goals as speaker was that, when you leave office, "the legislative branch is equally as important as the governor." Since rebalancing powers between the branches has been a longstanding concern, why did you wait to act until after Gov. Walker was defeated? Was it because you had, as you say, a relationship of trust with him?

Exactly. When I say we're going to operate as we have for the last eight years, that's the fact.

My fear is that Gov. Evers, very liberal, is going to try to end-run the legislature. My goal was to prevent that and utilize the tool that has worked successfully for compromise and collaboration.

Unfortunately, I think this is much ado about nothing, much more about partisanship than actual outrage. It's ironic, for those who are concerned about the legislature getting stronger, I'm sure they are the exact same subset who think Donald Trump shouldn't issue executive orders and instead pass laws through Congress.

It's sad that liberal groups focused on the timing. Everyone knows in our system today the executive is the most powerful branch of the three. If you look at where the legislative branch was intended to be by the framers of our republic, they always intended the legislative branch to be the check on the executive. We're the place that has the power of the purse.

If you read the bills, and I know most people won't do this, the vast majority are checks on spending and requiring the legislature to be part of important decisions for the state. 

If you take the names out, most people would say these are good, positive reforms. All of these probably would have gotten unanimous votes if Gov. Walker was reelected. The fact that they did not proves to me that some of my colleagues are not serious about the coequal branches of government.

I know you're not responsible for what happens in other states, but Michigan legislators also acted to weaken the powers of executive branch officials in the face of Democratic victories. This happened in North Carolina two years ago, and there were plans to do the same thing in Florida if Andrew Gillum had won. Can you understand why some people see this as part of a Republican playbook to change the rules in their own favor?

Yeah, I certainly understand they wish they had the ability to unilaterally make decisions. 

Once again, it's feigned outrage. I don't remember the media outrage when Massachusetts Democrats changed the rules when Mitt Romney came into office and then changed the rules again when he left office. [Note: Democratic legislators in Massachusetts stripped the governor of power to appoint U.S. senators while Republican Romney was in office, then restored that power after he left office.]

I don't know what's happening in Michigan or North Carolina except what happens in the media, which I distrust.

As you've noted yourself, Wisconsin's governor will still retain strong veto authority, maybe the strongest in the nation. How can you hope to have good working relations with Tony Evers in the face of this?

Well, because we both have a job to do. I did not vote for Tony Evers. I think he's the wrong choice for Wisconsin. It was basically a tied election with a small margin for Tony Evers. 

We're going to work with him where we can, but we'll compromise where we have to. I would hope he would say the same thing. If he wants to carry a chip on his shoulder, that's to his own detriment. But he has to decide that for himself.

It's true that Evers won with only a plurality, but Walker's wins were always fairly narrow, ranging from 51 to 53 percent. Yet those slim majorities didn't stop him or you from carrying out an ambitious agenda. 

What you asked me is about working with him. He did not get a mandate to turn Wisconsin into Madison. He got a mandate to govern, but that means he's going to do it with us -- not in spite of us.

I wanted to ask you about Madison. Just after the election, you were quoted as saying that Republicans would have won all the statewide offices and have bigger legislative majorities "if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula." Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, said after the package passed last month that citizens around the state deserve a "legislative branch that stands on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison." Isn't there something dismissive in suggesting that the state's major population and economic centers should somehow be discounted?

No. The difference is that Wisconsin, Madison and Milwaukee are hyper-liberal, and the rest of the state is moderate conservative. They have the chance to show they can govern for the entire state and not just hyper-liberals in our two biggest cities.

That's what Gov. Evers has to choose. Will he propose initiatives that make liberals in the two biggest cities happy, or will he propose things that work for the rest of Wisconsin?

You warned that if the package wasn't passed, “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” Evers ran on a liberal agenda. Isn't that what people voted for?

He did not run on an agenda. Go back and read the comments in the first few stories after he won. He didn't really have an economic agenda. He didn't have a farm agenda.

He ran on an agenda that targeted Gov. Walker with blistering attacks. If you asked voters on the street, name me five things that Tony Evers is for, they'd have a hard time answering that question.

Let me ask you about something entirely different. Next summer, you'll take over as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures. By that time, NCSL will have its first new executive director in more than 30 years. Where do you want the organization to go?

First of all, I am incredibly proud that NCSL is strong, it's bipartisan and it's one of the leading voices in the country for what I think is one of the most important parts of government, which is state government. Bill Pound has done something great in taking something that was small when he began and made it into a powerhouse. I don't think there's a lot that needs fixing.

What we need in society is more talking [with each other], not less. I hope NCSL will use its power to bring people together, even if they disagree. Bill Pound has left us in an amazing spot, and we need to continue. 

Some people at NCSL will object to this, but there's at least a perception among conservatives that it tilts left, or at least is not as friendly to conservatives as the American Legislative Exchange Council. How will you convince your fellow conservatives that NCSL is worthwhile and can be an important resource for them?

I'm already doing that. It's ironic. If you look at the way NCSL operates, you're going to have [Sen. Toi Hutchinson, the current president], a liberal Democrat from Illinois, where they're probably doing a lot of things conservatives don't want, and then a conservative speaker from Wisconsin probably doing a lot of things liberals don't want. That's the power of NCSL: to bring people together and not always agree but at the same time come together for discussion and different perspectives.

That's what we need more of. We have a C-SPAN-type channel in Wisconsin. [Democratic U.S. Rep.] Mark Pocan and I agreed to discuss the issues in greater depth. That's what NCSL can provide. There are different perspectives. They're not always right, but you can provide that forum and recognize that good ideas come from everywhere -- not just half the nation.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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