MADISON – Gov. Scott Walker could be going out like he came in — by considering sprawling, fundamental changes to state law with little public notice.
The outgoing Republican governor introduced what became known as Act 10 to curtail benefits and collective bargaining for public workers shortly after he was sworn in in 2011.
He made the move without telling voters about it first and described the strategy soon afterward as “dropping the bomb” in what he thought was a private phone call with a prankster posing as power-donor David Koch.
Now, Walker is signaling he will sign lame-duck legislation that would curb the authority of his Democratic successor, weaken the incoming Democratic attorney general and pare back early voting.
Walker has the ability to sign or veto the legislation — or reshape it by rewriting it using his line-item veto powers.
The lame-duck legislation was made public late Friday and passed by both houses Wednesday after an all-night session.
Regrets after Act 10
The rocket-fast legislative approach is one Walker said he regretted after Act 10 became law.
“What I hear is even people who kind of appreciate what’s been done still occasionally will say, ‘Yeah, but you should have told us more about why you were going to do (that),’ and I can see that,” Walker said in December 2011. “The mistake was I should have done more of that. I should have laid it out.”
He made the same point in his 2013 book, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.”
“While I did not apologize, I did acknowledge a critical error I made, which was not properly preparing the people of Wisconsin for our reforms,” he wrote. “I was so eager to fix the problems we faced, I did not do enough to explain to people what they were or why our solutions were the right course. I’ve learned from that experience and applied those lessons when announcing subsequent reforms.”
He indeed took that approach in the following years, holding news conferences to talk about why he supported legislation to use public funds to help build the Milwaukee Bucks arena and overhaul the state’s civil service laws.
But in this case, he hasn’t gone that route.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the comparison to Act 10 was “ridiculous” because the architects of the lame-duck legislation were Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and other Republican lawmakers, not Walker.
But Walker’s staff was closely involved with crafting the bills, according to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
“Chief of staff Eric Schutt has been a big part of all of those discussions,” the Juneau Republican said Monday. “Again, I think the governor came up with some ideas on how things should be handled. Certainly, there’s been a give and take, so I’m very comfortable that at the end of the day the governor is going to be fine signing some of this.”
Democrat Tony Evers, who beat Walker last month and will be sworn in Jan. 7, is urging Walker to veto the legislation. Evers said Thursday in La Crosse that his staff had requested a meeting with Walker.
Some Republicans are likewise telling Walker he should veto the legislation.
Charlie Sykes, the former WTMJ-AM (620) radio host and author of the book “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” wrote in a Thursday column in the Atlantic that Walker should veto the legislation.
“Signing the lame-duck legislation would be an especially classless way for Walker to leave office; it will tarnish his reputation in ways that I’m not sure he grasps,” Sykes wrote. “And, frankly, it’s just not worth it.”
Prominent Milwaukee businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Lubar — a past Walker supporter — sent Walker an email Tuesday encouraging him to look beyond “short-sighted machinations.” He promptly made the email public.
“I ask you not to destroy your reputation and side with Messrs. Vos & Fitzgerald,” he wrote. “What they are planning for the Republican Party of Wisconsin will malign its integrity and lead to its downfall. Worse, it will damage Wisconsin as it ignores the will of the majority of Wisconsin voters.”
“You can have a long successful career ahead. Don’t stain it by this pointless, poor-loser action.”
Walker said before lawmakers voted on the legislation that he was largely open to it, but he hasn’t said what he will do since then.
“For all the talk about reining in power, it really doesn’t,” he said Monday.
Whatever Walker does, it is sure to be one of the episodes he will be remembered for.
“Regardless whether he likes it or not, his legacy is going to be defined by what he does in his last couple of days in office,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton.
The latest legislation is moving faster than Act 10.
Walker initially envisioned introducing and approving Act 10 in a week, but that plan was stymied when Senate Democrats fled the state to block it.
The original version of that bill needed three-fifths of senators to be present for the legislation to be taken up, and the Democrats’ absence prevented Republicans from acting. They ultimately passed it — weeks later — by amending it so they did not need to have as many senators on the floor.
Karen Herzog and Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Herzog reported from La Crosse and Spicuzza from Milwaukee.
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