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‘A whole new ballgame’ awaits Wis. lawmakers after lame-duck session

Lawmakers return to the Wisconsin Capitol in January for the 2019 legislative session. File photo

Support for legislation that took powers away from Wisconsin’s incoming governor and attorney general last week was generally split along party lines.

Lawmakers representing St. Croix and Pierce counties were no exception.

For Sen. Patty Schachtner, the lame-duck session represented a reality check.

“It was the best learning experience in democracy, ever,” the Somerset Democrat said. “Everything I learned in school didn’t happen.”

The final GOP-authored legislation that went to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk was something Rep. Shannon Zimmerman said, while imperfect, was something he supports.

“In the end, it ended up working,” the River Falls Republican said. “Now we demonstrate to our Wisconsin residents how we can work together.”

Just how that happens remains to be seen, though Gov.-elect Tony Evers’ Jan. 7 swearing-in date represents the first time in eight years that Republicans won’t control all three branches of the lawmaking process — the Senate, the Assembly and the governor’s office. Evers, a Democrat, will present a budget that will likely be reshaped by the GOP-controlled Legislature before it’s returned to the governor’s desk for final review.

Schachtner said that process will give Wisconsin Democrats budget-negotiation leverage for the first time since 2010, when that party controlled both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.

“That’s a whole new story, a whole new ball game,” she said.

Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul will enter with diminished powers than had been granted to their respective Republican predecessors, Walker and Brad Schimel. The lame-duck session bills included provisions that now require the governor to receive the Legislature’s permission when seeking changes to programs — such as public benefits — that involve both the federal and state government.

Asked why those powers were permissible for Walker but not for Evers, Zimmerman said the changes reflect a balancing of power.

“There’s nothing that we just passed that shouldn’t apply to all governors, regardless of party,” he said, adding that Evers retains “the same constitutional powers and has the strongest veto pen in the country.”

At the attorney-general level, the legislation shifts control over how lawsuit settlements are spent from the attorney general to lawmakers, a move Zimmerman said removes bureaucrats from the decision-making process and puts those calls in lawmakers’ hands.

“I would rather have the Legislature influence where the money goes,” he said, “regardless of who’s in office.”

For Schachtner, those and other provisions were part of what she and Democrats called a Republican power grab.

“Whatever they wanted, they got,” she said, describing Senate negotiations over lame-duck bills as occurring exclusively among GOP caucus members.

Senators did not take up legislation that could have protected Wisconsinites with pre-existing conditions if a lawsuit undoes that provision under the Affordable Care Act, a move Zimmerman called “disappointing.”

He admitted the optics from the special session were “adverse,” saying much of the public dissent stemmed from early versions of legislation he called “flawed.” He said he worked behind the scenes with fellow Republicans to reshape those bills.

“The ultimate version of legislation to pass the lower and upper house are dramatically different than what was originally proposed,” Zimmerman said.

Lame-duck legislation also included a provision that restricts early voting to two weeks before Election Day. While Republicans said the language allows for 24-7 voting during that period — at county and municipal clerk discretion — Schachtner said that will be onerous on the clerks. She said it puts those public officials in a tight spot, where they’re forced to choose between keeping polling places staffed at all hours — creating overtime issues — or restricting those hours.

“And then you’ve just unintentionally caused voter suppression,” she said.

Zimmerman said the change allows flexibility.

“Clerks can be as friendly to the voters as they choose to be,” he said.

Walker has until Tuesday, Dec. 11, to decide the fate of the lame-duck legislation.

While both Schachtner and Zimmerman agreed the lame-duck session was divisive, neither one said the result will prevent bipartisan cooperation once the 2019 session opens on Jan. 10.

“We have to be able to work together,” Schachtner said.

Zimmerman, who will serve on the powerful Joint Finance Committee in 2019, said that while issues like taxes will bring disagreement, he expects to find common ground on education, workforce development and mental health issues.

“How can we not come together on those things?” he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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