MADISON, Wis.—A coalition of labor unions and a Democratic lawmaker filed another lawsuit Feb. 4 challenging last-minute measures Wisconsin Republicans approved last year to weaken the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, arguing the new laws are illegal and place an “incalculable” financial burden on taxpayers.
GOP legislators passed a sweeping package of legislation in December to weaken new Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats. The measure prohibits Evers from withdrawing from lawsuits, a move designed to block him from pulling Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. Other key provisions in the bill force Kaul to get approval from the Legislature’s budget committee before settling lawsuits, allow lawmakers to intervene in lawsuits, and restrict early-voting hours.
Liberal-leaning groups including the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in Dane County Court last month challenging the laws, arguing Republicans convened illegally to adopt the legislation. Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now challenged the early voting restrictions in federal court last month and convinced U.S. District Judge James Peterson to block them.
Now comes a third lawsuit. Five unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and their members along with state Sen. Janet Bewley filed the action in Dane County Court. The lawsuit brands the lame-duck laws “an assault on the will of the voters and an unprecedented ‘power grab.'”
The lawsuit alleges the new statutes violate the Wisconsin Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, which divides government into executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. The laws essentially steal power from the executive branch and transfer it to the legislative branch, the lawsuit contends, creating confusion about the state’s position in key litigation. The lawsuit points out that Evers, in his State of the State address last month, tried to order Kaul to withdraw from the ACA lawsuit only to have Kaul say he couldn’t without legislative approval. Republicans haven’t responded.
“It is particularly troubling that the extraordinary legislation imposes extra hurdles on the Attorney General and the Governor in situations where they wish to take the position that a given law is unconstitutional,” the lawsuit said. “This prevents the Executive Branch from fulfilling its key role as an independent, democratically accountable check on the Legislature should the Legislature pass an unconstitutional law.”
The filing also takes issue with the July 1 deadline requiring state agencies take down all public communications explaining how they’re interpreting laws, unless they send all the publications through a new process that includes a public comment period. The lawsuit alleges that means vast numbers of basic government communications could disappear, including employer handbooks on unemployment benefits, Division of Motor Vehicles bulletins about driver’s license exams and Department of Children and Families forms laying out eligibility requirements for child support.
The filing also alleges the laws could mean higher legal bills for the state since lawmakers can now insert themselves in lawsuits using private attorneys. It notes that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently released a contract showing taxpayers are paying at least $840,000 to defend Republican lawmakers in a federal redistricting lawsuit and plan to hire private attorneys at taxpayer expense to defend the lame-duck laws against the League of Women Voters.
“The financial burden that will be imposed on Wisconsin taxpayers as a result of this chaos and inefficiency is incalculable,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit concludes with an argument that the budget committee lacks the power to decide whether to settle a lawsuit because the 16-member panel doesn’t have enough members to constitute a majority of the Senate or Assembly.
By Todd Richmond