MADISON, Wisc.—Three Wisconsin labor unions filed a lawsuit Feb. 4 asking state courts to block the bevy of laws the Republican-controlled legislature rushed through in a lame-duck session last December to deny power to incoming Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.
The laws, which among other things prevent Evers from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, are not just “the ultimate sore-loser power grab,” American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin President Kim Kohlhaas told reporters in a telephone press conference. They violate the state constitution’s separation-of-powers principles, the suit argues, and, by giving legislative committees authority to stop executive-branch actions, enable laws to be enacted without a quorum in either house of the legislature.
The suit, filed in Dane County Circuit Court in Madison by the Service Employees International Union, the AFT-Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, state Sen. Janet Bewley, and several individuals and union officials, seeks a temporary restraining order preventing the laws from going into effect while the case is pending. “The bills passed by the Legislature and signed by the outgoing Governor have fundamentally altered Wisconsin’s system of government by shifting core functions of the Executive Branch to the Legislature, or even a single committee within the Legislature,” it declares.
Politicians don’t get to rewrite the rules just because they lost an election — SEIU Executive VP Neal Bisno
“Politicians don’t get to rewrite the rules just because they lost an election,” said SEIU executive vice president Neal Bisno. The 141-page package of bills was enacted in an overnight session after one day of hearings, and was signed by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker Dec. 14. North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature made a similar lame-duck session move after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016, enacting drastic restrictions on the governor’s power to make appointments.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a key force in pushing the bills through, did not respond to a request for comment from LaborPress.
Wisconsin’s package of laws, the suit argues, interfere with the executive’s constitutional duty to ensure that laws are “faithfully executed,” because it prevents the governor and Attorney General from settling or withdrawing from litigation, “requires the Attorney General to defend even plainly unconstitutional statutes,” and authorizes the Legislature to hire private lawyers at taxpayer expense to challenge or defend laws or executive-branch actions—including the state’s defense against this lawsuit. It also “allows a legislative committee to suspend unilaterally rules and regulations properly propounded by executive agencies,” and “imposes burdensome obstacles” on the executive branch’s duty to issue “documents explaining the laws and rules of the State to its citizens.”
“Taken together, these provisions intrude upon a core power of the Executive by allowing the Legislature to dictate what laws the State will enforce and how,” it says.
One of the laws enacted, the suit says, requires legislative approval for any “guidance document” produced by the state, from the handbooks for driver’s license exams to materials explaining public employees’ health insurance. To get this approval, heads of state agencies will have to specify how any rules in those documents are explicitly required or permitted by state laws or regulations. If any state document doesn’t meet these mandates by July 1, it will be rescinded.
Section 64 of Act 369, the suit notes, allows the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to suspend a rule issued by an executive agency indefinitely. This, it contends, is “plainly unconstitutional,” as it not only puts lawmaking power normally reserved for a legislative majority or a two-thirds veto override in the hands of one committee, it also does not give the governor or state agencies “any opportunity for veto.”
These laws, says Peter Rickman, head of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, could prevent the state labor department from approving an agreement between his union and employers to set up an apprenticeship program for hotel and restaurant workers without legislative approval. It also bars Gov. Evers from ending the waiver the Walker administration obtained that enabled the state to charge Medicaid recipients premiums and require them to work.
“This is Democracy 101,” Rickman said of the suit.