Monday, December 10, 2018

THE CHILDISH POLITICAL GAME FREEZING OUR STATE

By Dominique Paul Noth

Governor-elect Tony Evers  discovering just how futile
it is to appeal to Walker's conscience.
Not just Democrats are stuck in the childhood game of “Statues” – Stop Motion and Freeze! -- because of the lame-duck legislation dropped on Scott Walker’s desk, those controversial new laws that attack the new governor, the new attorney general, voting rights  and basic protections for the citizenry  against  governmental overreach while tangling us in red tape.

It comes in a season dominated by holiday chatter, the Packers after McCarthy, the Bucks in a new auditorium and so forth – but also  shortly after an election where voters spoke out for change in our economic oversight, health care championship and ways of working together. The contrast of what the legislature just did and what the public sought is enormous and normally would lace the season with community protests and media vitriol over the tone and methods of these bills. 

What’s happening instead is anger frozen in midair while even national columnists and past governors from both parties sound the alarm.  There is this strange paralysis because the basic question – “what do we do now?” – isn’t quite real yet. 

The departing governor is stringing out the possibilities of delay and uncertainty to the bitter end, leaving the public hanging in limbo not sure what to attack and what will remain.  Walker is urged by near and not so dear to show his hand, but he seems to enjoy keeping Wisconsin blurry and out of focus.

Even his normally optimistic replacement, Tony Evers, doubts that Walker will protect his own legacy or that of his state. The Republicans scoff and pretend that the new bills aren’t really dangerous or extreme.  But here’s a news flash --- they are. 

As of Dec. 10, Walker hasn’t even formally called for the lame-duck bills to come to his desk – he has until Dec. 20. And then he has a week to play with veto, elaborate partial veto and simple passage. Expect Walker to use the biggest partial veto pen in the nation to nip and tuck the dynamite – and pretend that he is turning a sow’s ear into a slightly better looking sow’s ear.  The best he is likely to do is put lipstick on this pig.

It’s not just how much of the intended consequences of these lame duck laws will be put in place.  It is how much of the unintended consequences will, or slippery consequences that the Republicans never talked about. In their haste they did not realize or even cared as they scribbled rewrites in the dark for several dreadful early December nights. Walker will not so much fine-tune this legislation as decide what to allow that doesn’t expose his own hypocrisy.

In past legislation designed to coerce him, he refused to let the legislature take this much power from the executive or encumber state agencies with the bucketloads of reports and paperwork these law require. Now he seems part of the move to force both the governor and the attorney general to genuflect to the legislature every time they seek a significant action.

In the past Walker tried to limit how the Department of Transportation could whipsaw state and federal funds around, or how much sway the legislature would have over routine executive decisions, or how much it controlled what he wanted to do with Medicaid. Despite his protests of not inhibiting Evers, he is likely to be doing just that.

Intended and unintended consequences are starting to mix together as more people examine these bills ahead of Walker’s decision, underscoring that he really can’t fix stuff the legislature should never have sent him in the first place and that I suspect he knew damn well was coming. It may take months to really understand the traps built into these bills.

The initial  court action – and I anticipate many filings -- is likely to circle in on the limitations on early voting and how deeply the two week time frame flies in the face of previous court decisions – most particularly a 2016 federal decision by Judge James Peterson that spells out how blatant the original bill was in attacking voting rights. 

This all ties in to an existing federal case attacking the gerrymandered maps. Without them, we wouldn’t be going through this current horror show. The hope and fear is the US Supreme Court will deal with either solution or avoidance in the spring.

The Republicans now try to claim that by giving up opposition to evening hours and weekends, their new two-week limit on early voting solves the many legal impediments, but it is a ludicrous argument and frankly an attempt to send Wisconsin voting back to the stone age. 

The Republicans claim, in an insult to rural voters, that this is the group “deeply distressed” that urban voters get to cast ballots weeks before they can.  The only complaint I hear from rural voters is more in the line of “give me some of that” – usually they want the state to technologically move forward into the 21st century with secure voting options that free rather than inhibit the time frame. 

That one is so obviously silly that Walker is likely to step in with his partial veto pen.  

But that doesn’t begin to touch the real damage the bills do to the operation of the government.

Republicans have created brand new sections of law that put the majority leaders of both chambers and the chairs of the joint committees (also Republicans) on par with the attorney general any time someone in the public dares challenge the constitutionality of a law they passed.  All these GOP insiders now have the authority to appoint legal counsel at taxpayer expense and the attorney general is merely “consulted.”

This is more than a slapdown of the new AG Josh Kaul. It deliberately chills the public from complaining unless they have such deep pockets they don’t care that the taxpayer will be paying the opposition counsel whatever the legislators involved require.

The AG is the highest law enforcement official in the state. He or she can’t directly strike down a law as unconstitutional.  But the current process requires input from the AG when the public does challenge, and the citizens naturally turn to their top elected officeholder for an evaluation, not expecting some wishy-washy legislator who wrote the bill to be given equal weight.  It sure makes you wonder what sort of behavior these legislators want to protect.  

Mandated intervention by legislators is the operative phrase in the many new sections in the laws.  The legislature can interfere anytime a court becomes interested in what it does, which seems a warped vision of checks and balances.  State agencies, with the exception of educational ones already protected by court decisions, can’t move an inch without a legislative okay and must prepare quarterly reports as detailed as if agency leaders were merely Bob Crotchet working for Scrooge.  Even the commissioner of insurance has to ask before he or she can give waivers. Legislature spanks if executives don’t curtsy deeply enough.

On and on the fine print runs, blocking in passing any effort by Evers to limit firearms at the Capitol or attract people to government who want to do important work. 

Independent analysts are beginning to take apart the tax legislation to demonstrate that, despite promises, it is not aimed at middle class relief or smoother operation but to help corporate partnerships and those households with a quarter of a million dollars or more in annual income. There is apparently a Republican definition of the middle class that is foreign to most Wisconsinites. 

The entire tax section is a muddle even for the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau in its formal analysis, which uses “indeterminate” a lot to describe the impact of a complicated law.

It isn’t so much that the legislators didn’t miss a trick, but they imposed so many tricks they themselves don’t even know what the legislation requires.

Apparently Evers most scared the willies out of them with his pledge, endorsed by the voters, to dissolve the WEDC (the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation) and create a better Commerce Department.  The new bills treat that as an open threat to the oceans of gimmes and giveaways that have rewarded the Republican top corporate donors through this Walker created shell game, which has been stalked by millions of dollars in scandals.

In the new laws, the CEO for WEDC is nominated by the legislature, not the governor; the board members from the legislature are expanded while quorum level is reduced, and the board can give the CEO broader discretion.  The WEDC on its own can lift the current restrictions on deals it makes with companies – in other words the entire legislative approach protects the WEDC and invites corruption.  Foxconn has been given looser job assurances to require and the governor’s point-person on Foxconn now reports just to the legislature.

You can start a good fistfight anywhere about the value or lousiness of the Foxconn presence in the state. But there is now universal agreement – except apparently in the GOP legislature -- that the looseness of the WEDC mechanism led Wisconsin to pay way too much for a promised job-land of milk and honey now curdling into lawsuits from other states and environmental groups
  
The WEDC protection in these laws is being advertised by the GOP as a testing period for the new governor, suggesting neither he nor the voters had a clue about economic development but that the mighty legislature did.  This advertised shakeout cruise imposed on the governor bans him from any meaningful say in the WEDC until after September 1.  Examine this from the pragmatic side.  The legislature has put itself in charge for most of 2019, defying the governor to make changes to their choice of CEO and operations if he is still unhappy next fall. They are telling the governor and the voters that their opinions about WEDC don’t really matter.

My personal feeling is that the attorney general is the most aggrieved party in the lame-duck bills and the least likely one for Walker to save, since that directly confronts the legislature and the GOP’s biggest donors. These attacks on the AG are one of the most blatant examples of revisionist history in memory – and with Trump occupying the White House, that is saying a lot.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  


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