Republican bills that critics say would strip power from Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul were the subject of a lengthy and heated public hearing Monday.
The Joint Committee on Finance heard first from the Legislative Reference Bureau and Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Each one answering pointed questions from the members of the committee.
Then, the panel handed the floor over to public testimony, which went on for more than four hours. In an effort to keep the hearing moving along despite the outburst from protestors outside and inside the committee room, the committee Co-chairman Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) kept a tight rein on proceedings.
The reason for the public outcry? GOP bills were proposed late Friday, which Democratic lawmakers and other critics view as a power grab by the Republican-led Legislature.
One measure, proposes to move the 2020 presidential primary from April to March, separating it from the spring elections. The change would cost about $7 million and has drawn opposition from nearly every county election official.
Critics say the move would be designed solely to give conservative state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly a better chance of winning reelection. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald acknowledged some people have that view, but he stopped short of saying it was the reason for the change.
Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson spoke in opposition to the idea of creating a separate election day for the state presidential primary.
"The changes included in this bill … not only have the potential to compromise the integrity and efficacy of our entire election process, but also vastly increases the election costs,” he said.
Christenson also believes there’s no point to it. "I don’t believe that this is going to help Republicans. I don’t believe it’s going to help Democrats. It's going to make our voters angry. And I would encourage you to oppose this."
Another GOP proposal would scale back the number of days communities could offer early voting. Critics argue the proposal to restrict early voting could generate even more costs because the state is sure to face a legal challenge if it passes.
Another bill Republicans are proposing would shift the balance of power from the executive branch to the Legislature. The measure would weaken the attorney general’s office by allowing Republican legislative leaders to intervene in cases and hire their own attorneys. Even in some cases replace the attorney general. Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach warned of the potential consequences.
"We are more than like quadrupling the amount of lawyers that are going around this building. I’m going to plead with you guys you don’t want to go down this road," Erpenbach said.
Some critics of the GOP bills sum them up as an effort by Republicans to grab power from Democratic Evers and to ignore the voices of voters who picked Democrats for all the statewide offices in last month’s elections.
Republicans defend the measures as a way to balance power among branches of government and say they’ve been considering the changes for some time. The proposals head next to the floor of the Legislature. If approved there, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has indicated he’s likely to sign them into law.