Republicans react to Evers lawsuit over joint committees

Republican lawmakers react to Gov. Tony Evers' lawsuit over joint legislative committees and separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, focusing on pay raises for UW staff.

By Marisa Wojcik, Zac Schultz | Here & Now

November 3, 2023

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Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he’s had enough, and so on Oct. 31 he filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Legislature saying Republicans are holding hostage pay raises for tens of thousands of Universities of Wisconsin state employees.

On Oct. 17, the Republican-led Joint Committee on Employment Relations, co-chaired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, signed off on raises for all state workers except employees of the UW. It was the last straw for Evers.

“The Republicans decided that 35,000 people that work for the UW system shouldn’t get a raise without having any legislation that gives them that authority. That’s just bull****, and so that was the defining moment right there,” Evers said on Nov. 1.

The raises were already approved in the state’s 2023-24 biennial budget. The lawsuit, brought by Democratic state Attorney General Josh Kaul on behalf of the governor alleges this and other actions by Republican-led committees are violating the Wisconsin Constitution and intruding into executive powers.

Evers further said Republican legislators are unconstitutionally obstructing basic functions of government. These other alleged violations from Republican-controlled committees include the Joint Committee on Finance repeatedly blocking conservation projects selected under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, as well as the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (or JCRAR) blocking updates to the state’s commercial building standards and ethics standards for licensed professionals.

“There’s nothing in law or the budget that was passed — which is law — to say that the Speaker or the Republicans in general, leadership can say, ‘Well, that 4%, you’re not going to get it or you might get it if you do x, y and z.’ None of that is in law and so that is an illegal act and so that pushed me over the edge,” Evers said in a Nov. 1 interview. “I mean — the other issues — I do believe it’s just a further effort that started before I became governor with the lame duck law and all the things that they’ve done about not approving my appointees or not — you know, all of that. It’s all part of it. But when you mess with 35,000 people at one time, that’s enough.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, if it takes this case, could make a broad ruling or issue a narrow ruling that focuses more specifically on UW employees, or JCRAR, or any of the other committees.

“It would be helpful for the Legislature to have a broad idea of what their authority is and what’s mine. That would be the best of all the alternatives, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure that we pay people what they should be paid,” Evers said when asked about his desired outcome. “So I think the best alternative would be a broad sweeping of things saying, ‘This is what your job is, this is what the governor’s job is — start behaving.'”

Some of these actions the governor referred to came out of lame duck laws passed under the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker immediately after Evers was elected to the office in 2018.

“We’ve always felt that they are wrongheaded and so if we have to make some changes, that’s fine,” Evers said about how this lawsuit relates to those actions. “I think, broadly speaking, the way the Republicans have essentially taken more and more power over time from the executive branch, we have to stop that and we have to understand that they’re coequal parts of government — the judicial, executive and legislative — and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not working that way now.”

Evers filed this lawsuit after the state Supreme Court flipped to liberal control in August. However, the governor said he would have filed it under a different makeup of justices.

“I think we’re going to get more than four votes on this one,” Evers said. “People should be able to understand that there is broad authority in all three branches. So absolutely. This recent thing, whether new judges or not, that’s irrelevant to this. We would have filed that regardless.”

In response to the lawsuit, Vos said in a statement: “Today’s lawsuit by Governor Evers and Attorney General Kaul is an attempt to eliminate the 4% raises given to all state employees by the Legislature.” Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Evers “is working to diminish the voice of Wisconsinites by limiting the authority of the legislature and unduly strengthening his own administration.”

Evers dealt with legislative rules during time as Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2009 to 2019. He considers some of these issues to be an ongoing but expanding practice when it comes to the balance of power between the executive and the Legislature.

“I’d say it accelerated with my election,” said Evers. “I think it’s always a little bit of an issue going forward, but because it’s just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, it became a thing and we have to deal with it. So I’m glad we filed this suit and we anticipate winning this suit.”

A year earlier, Evers was talking about a reset with Republicans in the Legislature. Since then, they have voted down multiple gubernatorial appointees and the governor filed this lawsuit.

“It’s the current state of politics, but we passed the budget, I signed the budget,” said Evers when asked if a “reset” was a realistic prospect. “We brought shared revenue to Milwaukee and other places across the state, every municipality. So we’ve had some successes. But we can’t stand for people not following the law and following what we’ve agreed to, and we did not agree to what the Speaker is doing now.”

Editor’s note: PBS Wisconsin is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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