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A Look At The Bills In Wisconsin And Michigan That Would Limit Newly-Elected Democrats


All right, let's broaden this conversation now and bring in Alan Greenblatt. He's a staff writer with Governing Magazine, and he's been following the action in all the state capitals closely. Welcome.

ALAN GREENBLATT: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So we just heard about one Michigan bill related to the attorney general's office. Can you just give us a sense of what kinds of things are contained in these bills in both Michigan and Wisconsin that are being construed as deliberate moves to strip power from incoming Democrats?

GREENBLATT: Yeah, these are moves to strip power, and there's a variety of ways in which it unfolds. There are formal mechanisms taking authority over certain laws away and giving them to different boards or commissions that would be overseen by legislators themselves. There's efforts to strip authority over lawsuits and give the governor or the attorney general less discretion in terms of what lawsuits they can pursue or appeal that would give legislators more say in the way all these rules are overseen.

CHANG: And if these bills do pass, they would go to Republican governors to sign. Are there any concerns that they would not sign?

GREENBLATT: It doesn't look likely at this point. Governor Walker, the outgoing Republican governor who lost to Tony Evers - he said, you know, of course it would depend on the details, but he basically intimated that he would sign it. We haven't heard yet from Rick Snyder, who's the outgoing Republican governor of Michigan.

CHANG: And, you know, we saw similar attempts happen in North Carolina a couple years ago when a Democrat flipped the governor's mansion. And then just recently there, voters responded to that power grab.

GREENBLATT: Well, that's right. There's been an ongoing legal and political battle between the governor and the legislature in North Carolina. And just last month, the legislature put two measures before voters to limit the governor's authority in terms of filling vacancies for the judiciary and to make appointments for the elections and ethics board. And in both cases, voters rejected those measures, keeping the power with the governor.

CHANG: OK, so should what happened in North Carolina be seen as a warning sign to other states attempting the same thing?

GREENBLATT: In terms of these process questions, there doesn't seem to be a political price to pay. So in Wisconsin, for example, there's only one Republican member of the state assembly and only two state senators who serve in districts that Tony Evers, a Democrat, carried in the governor's race. So it is likely that they see this as a positive, that the incoming liberal Democrat is seeing his powers curbed. They're not likely to worry about the constitutionality of these questions.

CHANG: Can you think of a specific example where a democratically controlled legislature tried to reduce the power of an incoming Republican administration?

GREENBLATT: We haven't seen these kind of broad attacks on authority. We have seen some Democratic legislators in different states talking about curbing the attorney general's power, but we haven't seen this broader attack on a governor's power or an executive branch powers in reverse with a Democratic legislature making life difficult for a Republican governor coming in.

CHANG: Now, a spokesperson for the incoming Michigan secretary of state said the legislature is trying to, quote, "thwart the will of voters." What do you think, Alan? Does this feel like politics as usual, or do you think this crosses a line?

GREENBLATT: I think it is a norm that's being broken. Our whole system is based on the peaceful transfer of power, and what legislators are saying is you're not going to have as much power after we do this transfer; we're going to clip your wings before you come in. And in general in recent years, we've seen legislatures assert their will in regards to ballot measures. They've had a lot of attacks on judicial independence. Legislators keep saying they are closer to the people and they're the most representative branch. But this is a relatively new development, sort of the tyranny of the majority with legislatures asserting their will over other branches even as they're saying, we're just trying to make things more equal.

CHANG: Alan Greenblatt of Governing Magazine, thank you very much.

GREENBLATT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "ROCKHOUSE PARTS 1 AND 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.