Wisconsin Republicans moved quickly on Monday with a rare lame-duck session that would change the date of the 2020 presidential primary, make sweeping changes to the duties of the governor and attorney general’s offices and concentrate federal money in fewer state highway projects.
Among the bills up for consideration is one that would require projects that receive any federal money to get at least 70 percent of their funding from that source. Critics quickly complained that such a change would reduce the number of projects subject to both federal Davis-Bacon requirements and hiring goals meant to direct work to companies owned by women, minorities and veterans.
The legislation, labeled Assembly Bill 1069, would also require WisDOT to tell local governments if projects rely on federal money or not, which could save municipalities time and money by letting them know in advance if they can forgo having to comply with federal regulations. Another provision would allow local governments to ignore some state building standards on projects that don’t receive federal cash, including those that receive state aid.
A Republican-controlled legislative committee planned to hold a public hearing on the proposal on Monday, immediately followed by a vote, setting the stage for approval in the state Senate and Assembly on Tuesday. Any vote to pass the sweeping package of bills would come about a month before Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who defeated Walker in November, is to take office.
Evers decried the lame-duck session — the first held in Wisconsin in eight years — as an embarrassment and attempt to invalidate the results of the November election, in which Democrats won their bids for every constitutional office, including governor and attorney general. Evers vowed to fight the lame-duck proposals, saying lawsuits were being explored, and called on the people of Wisconsin to complain to their legislators, even as the bills were speeding through the statehouse.
“It goes to the heart of what democracy is all about,” Evers said at a Sunday news conference held in Milwaukee at the Quarles & Brady law firm. “I think it’s the wrong message, I think it is an embarrassment for the state and I think we can stop it.”
He also held out hope Walker might stop the bills, but Walker has not yet expressed any opposition.
“His legacy will be tied to this,” Evers said of Walker.
Federal cash consolidation is ‘anti-women,’ critics say
Among the bills up for consideration is AB 1069, which critics fear could reduce the number of transportation projects that rely on federal money and, as a result, sharply decrease the number of projects that are subject to federal hiring standards. Those standards now require WisDOT to hire so-called Disadvantaged Business Enterprise firms, often owned by women, minorities or veterans, for at least 10 percent of the contracts let on projects that use federal money.
Some fear the proposed change will restrict that policy.
Anna Prinsen, owner of Onalaska-based Modern Crane, purchased her business a year and a half ago and just recently earned a DBE certification. After 11 years of working for a general contractor, Prinsen bought the company knowing the DBE certification would serve as a foundation upon which to build her business.
“With the DBE program, that allows women to be successful in the construction industry,” she said. “That’s one of the main reasons why I bought Modern Crane. There are still a lot of people skeptical of women in the construction industry. I feel like you have to give 150 percent more to be on people’s radar.”
Christy Wade, of Endeavor-based Arbor Green, said the DBE program has helped her company win work on major construction projects such as the Marquette Interchange near Milwaukee. Working on that three-year job was a “turning point” for her business, helping her meet other contractors and DBE companies in the industry. Wade said she felt blindsided by the Assembly bill, learning of it only on Monday morning.
Prinsen said she had spent the past three days studying what the proposal’s likely effects would be for her company.
“This bill seems to be very anti-women,” Prinsen said. “I think that if it goes through it will impact my future. Where I saw I could grow the company, where I could see the opportunity to expand and grow Modern Crane is dependent on having this be available.”
Effect on local governments
In addition to mandating where federal money must go, the bill would tell local governments if it’s being used on a particular project or not.
The lame-duck legislation would require WisDOT to tell local governments if a local project is going to receive federal money, and how it must be spent if it is.
This notification requirement was welcome news to Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highways Association. The trade group and highway commissioners across the state have struggled in recent months to learn whether a recent expansion of the state’s local bridge program will rely on federal dollars. If it will, local governments will find themselves required to abide by federal rules, which can come with relatively heavy compliance burdens.
“If you’re doing the Marquette Interchange, there’s a reason for those multiple layers of federal regulations and oversight,” Fedderly said. “If you’re doing a couple miles of paving in Vilas County, there’s not.”
The bill also means that local officials won’t have to comply with much of the state’s facilities-development manual when they are working on projects that don’t receive federal money. Projects that receive no federal funding and are reviewed and approved by a professional engineer or a county highway commissioner may only need to follow state design standards.
The last lame-duck session in Wisconsin occurred eight years ago, just before Walker took office, when Democrats tried unsuccessfully to approve union contracts.
This year’s proposals are wide-ranging and would affect everything in the state from carrying firearms in the state Capitol to changing an election date. Republicans want to move the date of the 2020 presidential primary, when Democratic turnout is expected to be high, so it won’t fall at the same time as when the Walker-appointed Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly is to be on the ballot.
Making such a change would cost about $7 million, according to estimates. Holding the presidential primary in March, in between state elections in February and April, would be impossible, 60 of 72 Wisconsin county election officials said in a letter voicing opposition to the proposed change. The state Elections Commission was scheduled to discuss the proposal at a meeting on Monday along with another one limiting early voting to the two weeks before an election.
A Republican-controlled legislative committee planned to hold a public hearing for eight hours Monday, before taking votes late in the night to set up final approval in the Senate and Assembly on Tuesday.
The votes to pass the sweeping package of bills would come about a month before Evers is slated to take office.Follow @natebeck9