Wisconsin's Democratic governor-elect on Tuesday accused the Republicans who control the Legislature of making a "desperate attempt to cling to power" by considering placing new limits on the governor's office before he takes over in January.
Tony Evers, who narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, said GOP legislative leaders should "stop any and all attempts to play politics and weaken the powers of the governor's office." Evers said in a statement that such a move would be a "complete violation of the separation of powers in our system."
Senate Republicans were meeting privately Thursday to discuss ways to reduce Evers' powers, a day after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he, too, would be open to doing that.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in an interview on WISN-AM that Republicans were discussing limiting the governor's authority over a process of enacting rules that have the power of law. The Legislature increased Walker's authority over that process shortly after he took office in 2011. Republicans have been in complete control of the Legislature and governor's since that year.
Walker hasn't said whether he would sign any such bills into law before he leaves office on Jan. 7. His spokeswoman, Amy Hasenberg, didn't immediately reply to a message seeking comment. Such a move has precedent: Republicans in North Carolina two years ago limited the number of appointments that the Democratic governor-elect, Roy Cooper, could make once he took office.
Former Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle told The Associated Press on Thursday that he hopes Walker will protect the powers of the office for his successor, Evers.
"There's some obligation on a governor in that situation to not just be a partisan player anymore and be a protector of the office, and I hope the governor does that," Doyle said. "I think that's how many governors would see it. You're no longer just a party operative, you're somebody who has to look at the bigger picture."
The lame duck session, which legislative leaders called at Walker's request during the campaign, was supposed to be exclusively about approving a $100 million tax break bill for paper products giant Kimberly-Clark Corp. The incentive package is designed to save a Fox Crossing plant that employs about 500 people. Republicans didn't have the votes in the Senate to approve the bill this year and it's unclear whether they do now.
While that measure is in limbo, Republicans are talking about doing much more, including kneecapping Evers before he takes office. In addition to reducing his rule-making authority, they could also look at making it more difficult for leaders of stage agencies to get confirmed and reducing the number of political appointees the governor can make. Other gubernatorial powers, like his extensive veto authority, are protected by the state constitution and would require a vote of the people to undo.
Republican Sen. Luther Olsen is chairman of the Senate's Education Committee and has worked closely over the years with Evers, the state superintendent since 2009. Olsen said Thursday that he didn't know exactly what the Senate may be taking up, but that he'd be open to scaling back the powers of the governor.
"I didn't like us doing it to begin with," he said. "I think we were blindly doing what Walker wanted. ... When one part of government cedes power to the other, it's never a smart move."
Even so, Olsen acknowledged it would not look good for Republicans to undermine Evers before he takes office.
"The problem is it just looks like you're trying to tie the hands of the new governor," Olsen said. "The optics problem looks bad."
Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the state Senate for the lame duck session, giving them little margin to lose votes. But starting in January, their majority will increase to 19-14.
Evers said in his statement that he wants to work with Republicans and Democrats on issues, including health care, education and infrastructure.
Doyle was in office the last time there was divided government, in 2007 and 2008, when Republicans controlled the Assembly and Democrats had the majority in the Senate. Doyle said he anticipates that Evers will "make every effort to reach across the aisle" and work with Republicans.
"He should approach them in good faith with an open hand," Doyle said.