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Lawmakers Look to Shift Power Structure

Wisconsin's State Capitol
Ann Althouse, Flickr

The Legislature’s budget committee is supposed to decide Tuesday whether to give Gov. Walker the power to sell state-owned property. He included the change in his budget. The proposal seems to be the latest to challenge Wisconsin’s long-standing power structure. Among others: a plan to prohibit circuit court judges from halting new state laws and to intervene in local politics.

Legislators recently voted to change the way Milwaukee County operates. Once Gov. Walker signs the bill into law, the County Board will have less power and the County Executive more. Opponents criticize the state for meddling in local affairs, but Rick Esenberg says, not so. He’s president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

“Counties are creatures of the state. That is the state creates them, the state could eliminate them if it wanted to. And that increasingly, the money that is spent on the local level actually comes from the state,” Esenberg says.

Esenberg says he has a hard time putting into the same box, all the shifts Republican leaders have initiated, since taking control of state government in 2011. He says for instance, he has not endorsed the GOP plan to limit the power of circuit court judges. They could not stop new laws from taking effect - if deemed unconstitutional; rather, the law would go before a higher court.

“At least the proponents of it say we don’t want one circuit court somewhere just to be able to put the implementation of a state statue on hold if it’s going to take months or years to get a higher court to review it. That’s really more about allocation of power within the judiciary rather than the distribution of power between the Legislature and the judiciary,” Esenberg says.

Legislators proposed the change, after a Dane County judge ruled Act 10 unconstitutional and issued an injunction against it.

The ruling has raised questions about whether the law limiting public worker rights, is in effect.

While Esenberg says he understands lawmakers’ frustrations, Janine Geske says the proposed judiciary shift concerns her.

She’s a Marquette Law professor and former state Supreme Court Justice.

“That balance of power that’s constitutionally based really needs to be respected to keep our democracy,” Geske says.

According to Geske, if lawmakers move forward with the proposal, expect challenges.

“I don’t think the Legislature has the power to be able to enact laws that affect a judicial order in terms of staying a law so that clearly is a constitutional issue,” Geske says.

As far as the Legislature possibly granting Gov. Walker the power to sell state owned property, Geske calls the plan disconcerting – but not a constitutional issue.

Mordecai Lee is a Professor of Governmental Affairs at UW Milwaukee. He sees Republicans taking a page from Democrats’ playbooks of past decades.

“Probably beginning in the 1920s we think of the Republican Party as the anti-status party. In other words, the party that said this is an improper extension of the power of government; this is not something that a state or a federal government should do. We should leave this to the locals. The Republican party is now the second status party," Lee says.

According to Lee, Republicans now see government as a means to an end. He says the only problem, is that we seem to be moving into an era of flip-flopping – when political power shifts, so will the laws.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.