What Democrats can (and can’t) do with a weakened governorship

Democrats rode an ambitious agenda to their clean sweep of Wisconsin’s state offices, but questions around their ability to execute now surface as it seems likely that the offices they inherit will be weaker than those they ran for.

Image By: Michael Makowski

In the wake of several last minute reforms from state Republicans, Democrat Tony Evers will likely not inherit the full authority enjoyed by Gov. Scott Walker during his time in office, despite defeating the two-term incumbent last month.

After the Republican’s surprise defeat, Walker’s allies in the Legislature floated ideas about how to protect the conservative reforms they have passed over the last eight years, culminating in a slew of legislation to take away the power of incoming state Democrats before they take office.

Evers, who campaigned on a variety of ambitious changes to existing policy despite a GOP-dominated Legislature, will face an even further uphill battle to enact his agenda.

Health care

Democrats across the country campaigned on health care in 2018, and Wisconsin’s progressive campaigns were no different.

Evers swore to accept federal dollars available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to thousands of more Wisconsinites, something Walker has refused to do since taking office in 2010.

Medicaid expansion, seen by many Democrats as an essential goal of expanding health care access, is still on the table for Evers, but state Republicans were able to make long-desired changes to the program itself.

Following approval from the Trump administration, Walker and the GOP moved quickly to draft legislation adding new work requirements for childless adults under 50 who fall below the poverty line.

Additionally, some childless adults on BadgerCare would now need to pay premiums according to their income levels.

Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul also promised to withdraw the state from its joint lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, which Wisconsin tacked onto with a number of other GOP state departments of justice to challenge the Obama-era law.

A provision passed by the lame duck Legislature would directly prevent the state Democrats from doing so without the say-so of the GOP Legislature.

Republicans did try to pass a bill that would attempt to ensure coverage of people with pre-existing conditions independently of Obamacare, a measure Walker and legislative Republicans campaigned heavily on, but it failed to pass.

A few Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the legislation, with Democrats arguing that any protections without the entirety of the security provided by the Affordable Care Act would be hollow and at risk of drastically increasing costs for vulnerable patients.

Voting and elections

Record levels of early voting and general turnout came through in a big way from Democrats last November, and GOP legislators took notice.

Some of the most controversial proposals of the session came in the form of limitations to early voting in the state, cutting it to two weeks prior to an election. This measure was successful.

Republicans additionally sought to change the date of the state’s 2020 Supreme Court election, which currently sits on the same date as the year’s primary for president.

Critics accused legislators of fearing high levels of Democratic turnout in a potentially high-profile presidential primary and trying to shield the incumbent conservative candidate from competition.

The measure failed to garner the necessary votes due to opposition from election officials, who raised significant concerns over the proposed change, which would result in back-to-back-to-back elections three months in a row.

Democrats have also been heavily critical of the controversial voter ID law passed under Walker, which tacks on additional requirements to voting that disproportionately hinder voters of color and with low income.

Republicans enshrined the law as a statute, ensuring it will be enforced in future elections.

Administrative authority

One of the most powerful roles of the governor is their control over state agencies, who carry out the practice and enforcement of laws passed by the Legislature.

Republicans, worried about handing a Democratic governor control over these agencies, passed unprecedented limitations on the office’s power.

The GOP Legislature has now given itself the power to block many of the rules the incoming governor could propose, a move that many have criticized as overstepping the state government’s system of checks and balances.

Additionally, Republican legislators will gain greater direct control over the practices of state agencies themselves should the reforms be signed off by Walker, who has spoken favorably of the proposals.

Legal challenges

Next to Evers, Kaul and his soon to be office of attorney general stand to lose the most authority with the new reforms.

The incoming Democrat promised to function as an aggressive arbiter of progressive legal challenges on existing environment, gun control and health care law.

Republicans initially proposed a bill that would have allowed legislators to remove Kaul entirely from certain legal battles and replace him with private attorneys at the state’s expense, but eventually relented on that front.

Still, the reforms that did pass would allow legislative Republicans to directly intervene if the attorney general challenged existing state laws, which could hamstring any of Kaul’s efforts to pursue litigations to do things like crack down on pollution.

Economic development

Republicans would also temporarily remove the governor’s authority over appointing the head of the state’s economic development agency, which Evers has criticized as too unaccountable to taxpayers.

Many of the moves around control over economic development come as the GOP hopes to shield the state’s deal with Foxconn from shifts in partisan power.

Democrats, Evers included, have long criticized the agreement as an untransparent giveaway to a large corporation.

Despite the recent controversy surrounding the deal, and a slew of large protests around the Capitol in response to the lame duck session altogether, Walker seems likely to sign most, if not all, of the proposals into law.

Regardless, Democrats will challenge much of the legislation as unconstitutional as both sides buckle down for what is likely to be a lengthy and contentious legal battle.

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