MacIver News Service | Jan. 10, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — In a “good-faith effort” to find common ground, Assembly GOP leadership on Thursday sent Gov. Tony Evers a letter outlining “shared priorities.”
But all the “olive branch” talk coming from the freshly inaugurated Democratic governor and the Legislature’s Republican majority seemed to wear thin amid left-led lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of last month’s extraordinary legislative session.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) sounded a conciliatory note while promising a united front from Republicans in both houses in fighting against a liberal agenda. In a rare, if not unprecedented move, Senate and Assembly Republicans plan to caucus together next week. Evers has accepted an invitation to meet with Republicans during the closed-door session, Vos told reporters Thursday at a Capitol press conference.
“The Senate and the Assembly are going to sit down because we are going to be united on a vast majority of issues, because we understand there is one group who is here with the main job of protecting taxpayers, and that’s the Republicans in both chambers,” said the speaker, who took questions alongside Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).
Assembly Republicans and their counterparts in the Senate scuffled over a few policy areas last session, particularly transportation, but Vos said the GOP knows what’s at stake if they don’t present a unified front in divided state government.
While Republican leaders say they want to work to build consensus with the new governor, they will hold the line on efforts to raise taxes and expand the bureaucracy.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a whole lot of disagreement between the Assembly and the Senate because we understand it’s our job to stop the growth of government,” the speaker said.
Less than a week into the new session, liberals are doing what they often have done over the past eight years, when Republican controlled the Legislature and the executive branch: they are filing lawsuits.
A coalition of left-wing organizations, including the League of Women Voters and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to undo the bills passed in December’s extraordinary session, called by the Republican majority. As is often the case, the liberals filed in liberal Dane County in pursuit of a liberal judge.
Democrats called the session, which included some bills that limited the authority of Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, a “power grab” by Republicans. The plaintiffs, however, are suing on procedural grounds — semantics really. They claim Republicans acted outside constitutional authority to call an “extraordinary session.”
Most lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — and the press have referred to the December meeting of the Legislature with the usual descriptor, a “lame duck” session. Democrats in control of the Legislature in 2010 called a similar, urgent session in December that year, days before incoming Republican Gov. Scott Walker was inaugurated.
“Extraordinary” or “lame duck,” constitutional experts believe the lawsuit has little chance of success, like myriad liberal litigation challenging the Republican-led Legislature and the governor’s authority over the past eight years.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) called the lawsuit frivolous and told the Associated Press that Democrats were “throwing a tantrum.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), filed a complaint with the Dane County District Attorney’s office. Anderson, who is paralyzed and said he can only be in his wheelchair for 16 hours a day, claims he missed the early-morning votes on the bills after Republicans spent the prior night negotiating the measures in caucus.
Vos said he didn’t have much confidence that Kaul, whom the speaker called an “activist” Democrat attorney general, will fairly represent the Legislature and state in the lawsuit. The speaker said Kaul’s inauguration speech, the most partisan of all the state officeholders, did not set a tone of impartial leadership at the top of the state Department of Justice.
One of the extraordinary session changes allows the Legislature to retain outside counsel to defend itself against lawsuits. It appears likely Republicans will avail themselves of that power in the latest challenge.
Evers quickly changed his mind last week after first saying he would not follow the extraordinary session laws. But Vos believes the governor knew that his liberal activist friends would file the lawsuit and take the pressure off him.
“I hope he does not go to the worst angels, with (liberal) interest groups trying to call the shots,” the speaker said.
The governor’s office did not return MacIver News Service’s request for comment. But Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff told the Associated Press the governor expected such a legal challenge and that he would consult with his attorney about his next move.
In the spirit of bipartisanship (at least in Evers’ first week in office), Assembly GOP leaders see at least 11 policy areas where Republicans and the new governor can find common ground —from attracting workers to the state’s record low-unemployment economy to support for K-12 education.
Steineke said he sees potential in bipartisan legislation to tackle homelessness.
“We want to build off the successes we had in the last session … with bipartisan legislation on how the state can for the first time have a concerted effort to end homelessness,” the majority leader said. The Assembly passed a bipartisan package of bills on combatting homelessness in the last session.
It appears the first order of legislative business is a looming vote on a bill ensuring coverage of people with pre-existing conditions. Republican leadership expects a proposal to be taken up as soon as the week after next.
Assembly Republicans also see the possibility of common ground on tax relief. Evers campaigned on a tax cut for the middle class. Vos said he likes the sound of that. But he further warned that Republicans will have no patience for income tax increases.
“If he puts in dozens of Democratic policy planks, it’s just not going to work,” Vos said.
Read the letter to Evers from Assembly leadership here