GOP lame-duck bills would move 2020 presidential primary, limit early voting, weaken Evers, Kaul

MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans released sweeping lame-duck legislation Friday that would move the 2020 presidential primary, restrict early voting and weaken both Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul and Gov.-elect Tony Evers.

The GOP aims to hold a hearing on the bills Monday and take floor votes on Tuesday, giving current Gov. Scott Walker a chance to reshape state government again before he leaves office in January.

"Wisconsin law, written by the Legislature and signed into law by a governor, should not be erased by the potential political maneuvering of the executive branch," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement. "The legislature is the most representative branch in government and we will not stop being a strong voice for our constituents."

The package is loaded with contentious proposals, chief among them a plan to shift the 2020 presidential primary from the first Tuesday in April to the second Tuesday in March.

Republicans have acknowledged the shift is a purely political tactic as conservative state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, a Walker appointee, will be on the April ballot and the GOP fears a Democratic wave could cost him his job. They've said decoupling Kelly's race from the primary could help him.

The bill would create three elections in three months: the February state primary, the March presidential primary and the April state general election. Local clerks have balked at the plan, saying it's logistically impossible to administer so many contests in such a short period of time and it would cost millions.

The legislation also would limit in-person early voting statewide to a two-week window before elections. Right now, municipalities set their own in-person early voting dates and hours.

The move comes after nearly 60 percent of eligible Wisconsin voters went to the polls in the Nov. 6 election, a record for a midterm contest. The turnout helped Democrats seize all four statewide offices, ousting Walker and GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel along the way.

If that proposal passes, it could be headed for court. U.S. District Judge James Peterson in 2016 struck down Republican-authored restrictions limiting municipalities to one location for in-person early voting and limiting in-person early voting to weekdays. Peterson said imposing weekday limitations intentionally discriminates against Democratic-leaning black residents in Milwaukee. State attorneys have appealed the ruling.

Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Institute, which brought the lawsuit, issued a statement saying Republicans are trying to "rig" election rules again.

The legislation also would largely sideline Kaul, the new attorney general, unless he adopts Republican stances in court.

Typically the attorney general represents the state in court, but the proposals would allow GOP legislative leaders to intervene in cases and hire their own attorneys. If lawmakers feel they represent the state's best interests, they could push the attorney general aside.

Currently, the governor approves whether the attorney general can withdraw from a lawsuit. Under the bills, the Legislature's finance committee would approve withdrawal rather than the governor. The Democratic Kaul has pledged to end Wisconsin's involvement in a multi-state lawsuit challenging the federal Affordable Care Act.

The legislation also would eliminate the state Justice Department's solicitor general's office — Kaul wants to shift some positions from that office to environmental enforcement — and force the DOJ to deposit all settlement winnings into the state's general fund.

Kaul spokeswoman Gillian Drummond didn't immediately reply to an email seeking comment. Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling issued a statement saying Republicans are throwing a "temper tantrum" after losing the governor and attorney general's offices.

"This lame duck session has been a bait and switch to rush through more partisan bills, rig elections and consolidate more power in the hands of Republican politicians," Shilling said.

Other proposals would:

—Ensure Evers appointees can't control the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. A Senate bill would reduce the number of gubernatorial appointees to the WEDC board by two, creating a 6-6 stalemate. An Assembly bill would expand the board from 12 to 18 members, leave the number of gubernatorial appointees at six but give Republican leaders four more appointees, resulting in an 11-7 Republican edge. The board also would pick the agency's CEO rather than the governor.

—Require state health officials to implement a federal waiver allowing Wisconsin to require childless adults to work to receive health insurance through the BadgerCare Plus program. The legislation prevents Evers from seeking to withdraw the waiver.

—Require Evers to get permission from the Legislature before he could ban guns in the state Capitol.

The package proposes no changes to the state's legislative redistricting process or offers any assistance for papermaker Kimberly-Clark, which has threatened to close a plant near Appleton.