It’s not every day that a governor is booed at the annual
Christmas tree lighting. Then again, it’s not every day that a political party
goes into overdrive trying to consolidate power in a lame duck legislative
But that’s what happened to longtime labor-antagonist Gov. Scott Walker recently in Wisconsin. A similar scene is playing out in neighboring Michigan where the concept of “Midwestern Nice” is nowhere to be found.
|Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Wisconsin are using their lame duck sessions to consolidate power in their respective legislatures before incoming Democratic governors and other elected office holders are seated in January, leading to protests at both capitols. Photo credit: Michigan AFL-CIO
In both states, voters elected Democrats to the governors’ mansions and other statewide offices in November but retained Republican majorities in the state legislatures. With the help of their outgoing Republican governors, those majorities are throwing civility and precedent aside to pass as much legislation as possible in the interim session aimed at weakening the offices soon to be held by Democrats. The result would concentrate power in the hands of the remaining Republican officeholders.
“Elections have winners and losers and the strength of our democracy rests on the ability of everyone to respect the outcomes and support a fair and transparent transfer of power,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “This type of manipulation isn’t just petty, it’s an attack on representative democracy.”
The political maneuvering on both sides of Lake Michigan has resulted in sessions stretching well into the wee hours, with votes being held under literal cover of night. It has also sparked outrage, with IBEW members and other labor advocates crowding state capitols in protest.
In one brazen power grab, the Wisconsin Senate approved an astounding 82 appointments to various statewide offices in just one day, further entrenching Walker’s legacy, one already full of virulently anti-worker policies.
It also passed legislation that limits early voting, a restriction similar to another that was ruled unconstitutional, local news station Fox 6 noted. Walker nevertheless signed it into law on Dec. 14, along with other bills to weaken the office he’s vacating and that of the attorney general.
“The entire thing is, frankly, a hot mess,” said Wisconsin governor-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, on CNN. “It’s telling the people of Wisconsin their vote doesn’t count.”
In Michigan, the GOP took its own swing at voting rights when the Senate voted along party lines to gut a petition approved by voters last month to make it easier to vote. Other citizen-initiated petitions to provide paid sick leave and increase the minimum wage have also been thwarted.
Public-sector workers have also been in the GOP’s crosshairs during the session. Outgoing Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof reluctantly admitted this week that he didn’t have the votes for a draconian anti-union bill that would have required public-sector unions to hold recertification votes every even-numbered year at union expense. The bill, which was strikingly similar to an American Legislative Exchange Council template enacted in Iowa several years ago, passed out of a Senate committee, but looks unlikely to make it to a floor vote.
Another set of bills still under consideration would prohibit paid release time in public workplaces, which would cut back the time shop stewards are able spend on union-related business. Four bills have been introduced, but the outcome may depend on which, if any, get passed. Several of the bills could not only inhibit the ability of union representatives to do their work, but also eliminate the reimbursed time that counts toward their pensions.
Detroit Local 58 has been encouraging its members to contact their lawmakers about the bills, said Business Manager Brian Richard.
“Our members just want to go to work and do their jobs, and our reps just want to make sure their voices are heard,” Richard said. “This type of legislative manipulation undermines that. It’s a blatant attack on the right of working people to come together in union and exercise their basic rights.”
Wisconsin’s GOP is also using its lame duck to weaken the prevailing wage. The legislation, signed by Walker, will result in fewer transportation projects being subject to the higher wage standard, reported Wisconsin Public Radio.
Badger State Republicans are also wresting control of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which deals with job creation, by stacking the board with Republican appointees and stripping oversight power from the governor.
Evers has said he intends to make changes to the agency. In the interim, he’s appointed Milwaukee Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh to a workforce advisory council as part of the governor-elect’s transition team. Other appointees include Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and the Amalgamated Transit Union’s Bruce Colburn.
Republicans in both states are also seeking to give their legislative bodies the power to intervene in state lawsuits, thereby weakening the autonomy of the attorneys general, both newly-elected Democrats.
In Wisconsin, Walker signed legislation that will do just that, hindering the ability of Evers to withdraw the state from a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
In Michigan, Republicans are trying to take campaign finance oversight away from the incoming secretary of state, another newly-elected Democrat.
The barrage of attacks has spurred some Democrats in the Michigan Assembly to call for an end to the lame duck altogether.
“Shielded from accountability from voters for another two years, the practice of rushing through controversial legislation during this period has become common,” said Rep. Kristy Pagan in a statement. “We must restore our democratic principles and vote to eliminate the lame duck session no matter which political party is in control.”
The legislative power grabs are made even more egregious by the fact that both states are heavily gerrymandered. In Wisconsin, Democratic legislative candidates got 190,000 more votes, but Republicans will hold 63 out the possible 99 seats. In Michigan, voters approved an initiative to address the issue, but Republicans are using the lame duck to water it down with a bill the Brennan Center for Justice called “troubling,” according to news outlet Michigan Bridge.
Similar takeover attempts were made in North Carolina in 2016 and challenged in court, which is likely to occur in Michigan and Wisconsin as well. They also may have energized the opposition, said Brennan Center Senior Counsel Dan Weiner to The Guardian.
“On the level of pure politics, I sometimes scratch my head over what they’re doing,” Weiner said. “In some ways, it’s very shortsighted.”