Could Wisc. lame-duck power grab happen here?

Anything is possible, but rules would make it difficult

The stunning, lame-duck power grab this week by the Wisconsin legislature would be far more difficult to pull off in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Legislature operates under a system of rules that gives lawmakers nearly a half-year off while they campaign for reelection. During that six-month period, the Legislature meets in what it calls informal sessions, where few lawmakers are present and typically only non-controversial bills are taken up. While nothing is impossible on Beacon Hill with enough votes, it would be very difficult for Massachusetts lawmakers to do what their counterparts in Wisconsin did.

In Wisconsin, after hours of “mysterious closed-door meetings,” the Republican-controlled Senate came into session at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday and passed by one vote a package of bills designed to curb the power of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general. The Republican-controlled State Assembly passed the same legislation by a much wider margin later that morning.

The measures now go to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has indicated he will sign them into law before relinquishing power in January to Tony Evers, the Democrat who narrowly defeated him in the November election by about 29,000 votes out of 2.9 million cast. On election night, Evers said: “The voters spoke. A change is coming, Wisconsin!”

While Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have characterized the legislation they passed early Wednesday morning as a rebalancing of power between the political branches, the comments of top legislative leaders suggest the bills were an attempt to thwart some of the change Evers was talking about on election night. (A Politifact report indicated the Wisconsin legislature gave the governor more power in 2011, power it is attempting to withdraw this year.)

Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican leader of the Wisconsin Senate, described Evers on Monday as “the lapdog” of the state teachers union and said that legislators “don’t trust” him. He warned that Evers would create “absolutely the most liberal administration that we have ever seen in the state of Wisconsin.”

GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was equally blunt. “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in,” he said.

Evers said the legislature’s action was an attempt to thwart the will of the voters. “I view this as a repudiation of the last election,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The measures approved by the Wisconsin legislature would give lawmakers much more control over transportation and highway spending, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the disposition of money collected in legal settlements. The measures would also affect Medicaid recipients, fortifying a requirement that they get jobs and codifying a plan mandating that they be tested for drugs. The measures would also prevent Evers from barring guns in the Capitol and allow lawmakers to hire their own private attorneys (rather than Democratic attorney general-elect Josh Kaul) at taxpayer expense if they are sued in their official capacity.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

In Massachusetts, it would be far harder to pass such measures in a lame-duck session. The Legislature typically ends its formal session at the end of June in an election year and meets only in informal sessions the rest of the year.

According to House rule 44, the House can only consider specific types of legislation during informal sessions. “No new business shall be entertained, except by unanimous consent,” the rule states. “Formal debate, or the taking of the sense of the House by yeas and nays, shall not be conducted during such informal session.”