Along with a series of bills largely meant to curtail the power of the incoming governor and attorney general, Wisconsin Republicans have given approval to a bill seeking to concentrate federal money into fewer highway projects to prevent work from coming under Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage requirements and other federal regulations.
That piece of legislation was just one among a series of bills GOP lawmakers passed late Tuesday or early Wednesday in a so-called extraordinary session held in the weeks before electoral defeats in November cause their party to lose control of both the governor’s and attorney general’s office. Other proposals up for consideration would limit the governor’s ability to adopt administrative rules and shield the state’s jobs agency from his control.
Much of the legislation has been criticized by Democrats and members of the public as a power grab. But the bill dealing with transportation, although it has drawn opposition from various union groups and local governments, has so far led to little public outcry.
Its main provision would require that whenever federal money is used for big highway projects, or state-highway rehabilitation estimated at less than $10 million, that at least 70 percent of the funding come from federal sources. Various state GOP legislators have long sought to concentrate federal money into a relatively small number of highway and bridge projects in order to prevent such work from coming under federal Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage requirements and other federal regulations.
During a meeting of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Monday, Al Runde, program director at the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, confirmed that requiring federal money to make up a larger part of highway projects would mean fewer projects would be subject to federal rules.
“The number of projects that would have to meet prevailing wage and other requirements would be limited because you have have to hit that 70 percent threshold,” Runde said.
At the same time, the proposal could give WisDOT and Evers “less flexibility” when they draw up transportation budgets, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report on the bill. Concentrating federal money into fewer jobs would force the state to shoulder the cost of a greater number of projects, according to the report, stretching thin whatever money it does have.
WisDOT could also miss out on some federal aid for particular projects if it couldn’t get enough to meet the 70 percent requirement. The state, for instance, often receives $40 million for transportation projects at the end of federal fiscal years. But, should the transportation-related bill become law, that money could be forfeit if there were not enough of it for the 70 percent requirement.
The bill responds to that concern by allowing the 70 percent rule to be waived for particular projects with the permission of lawmakers on the state’s Joint Finance Committee.
Republican lawmakers have long discussed the possible benefits of having a “swap” policy that would direct federal money toward large projects to prevent smaller ones from coming under what they deem burdensome federal regulations. With that goal in mind, lawmakers recently adopted a budget provision that, although not mandating a swap, increases WisDOT’s ability to move money about. The current bill would go farther by requiring federal money to be concentrated into fewer projects.
In trying to prevent road work from coming under federal rules, many Republicans contend they are trying to avoid the cost inflation that results from the minimum wages set by the Davis-Bacon law. During the Joint Finance Committee’s hearing on Monday, state Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Saukville, said avoiding federal requirements would save the state money and enable it to perform more road work.
Stroebel and other Wisconsin GOP lawmakers had repeatedly made such arguments over the past several years when passing legislation to gradually eliminate the state’s own prevailing-wage laws.
“Studies have shown, and I think even road builders have concluded – quite frankly, even union road builders have concluded – that if there aren’t federal dollars involved in a certain project, and there’s nothing that says they have to be, that often times those transportation dollars will extend your buying power by at least 25 percent if not more,” Stroebel said.
But at least one representative of local governments says he thinks the claims of cost inflation are exaggerated. Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, said he is eager to see if moving more federal money out of local projects – and thus avoiding Davis-Bacon requirements – will really lead to savings.
“Before I would agree or disagree I’d want to see the actual dollar figures and numbers of projects and where it was applied,” he said.
Critics of the transportation-related proposal have also contended that preventing projects from coming under federal regulations could harm construction companies owned by women, minorities and veterans. Such Disadvantaged Business Enterprises often benefit from federal rules requiring that they receive a certain percentage of public projects. But those rules don’t necessarily apply when federal money isn’t being used.
Fedderly, for his part, expressed support for other parts of the transportation-related bill, technically named Assembly Bill 1069. One provision would prevent local projects that receive no federal money from having to comply with state regulations other than design standards.
Fedderly said these regulations can make small, local projects needlessly complicated. Federal rules, for instance, often require local officials to interview at least three design firms for any road project they might be contemplating. Their final choice must also be approved by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, a step requiring both additional time and money. Fedderly said there’s no reason why local officials – especially when working on small projects – shouldn’t be trusted to select a design firm on their own.
Fedderly also supports a bill provision that would require WisDOT to tell local officials promptly if federal money would be set aside for a particular project. Fedderly and others have complained that WisDOT has not always been forthcoming with such information, making it difficult for local officials to know if they will have to abide by federal rules or not.
As for the other lame-duck bills up for debate, Republicans worked on them late through the night amid protests, internal disagreement and opposition from Democrats. Critics argue the legislation was meant solely to reduce the powers of Tony Evers, a Democrat elected governor in November, and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, also a Democrat, after they take office.
Evers and Kaul urged Republicans not to approve the bills during the lame-duck legislative session, warning that lawsuits would bring more gridlock to Wisconsin when the new administration — and the first divided government in the state in 10 years — takes over.
“This is a heck of a way to run a railroad,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, a Democrat from La Crosse, said as debate resumed at 5 a.m. “This is embarrassing we’re even here.”
In one concession, Republicans backed away from giving the Legislature the power to sidestep the attorney general and appoint their own lawyers when state laws are challenged in court. An amendment to do away with that provision was part of a Republican rewrite of the bill, made public around 4:30 a.m. after all-night negotiations.
Even amid the victories by Evers, Kaul and every other Democrat running for statewide office, Republicans managed to maintain majority control in the Legislature for the next two years. Democrats blamed partisan gerrymandering by Republicans for stacking the electoral map against them.
“Why are we here today?” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat from Oshkosh, said as the debate of more than nine hours began late Tuesday night. “What are we doing? Nothing we’re doing here is about helping the people of Wisconsin. It’s about helping politicians. It’s about power and self-interest.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, countered that the bills will ensure there’s a balance of power between the Legislature and the executive branch.
“We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive,” Vos said. “To you this is all about politics. To me, it’s about the institution.”
The bills would weaken the governor’s ability to put in place rules that enact laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control until September. They would also restrict early voting to no more than two weeks before an election, a restriction similar to what a federal judge ruled has deemed unconstitutional. Democrats were optimistic that the latest attempt to restrict early voting would be rejected by the courts again.
The bills would also weaken the attorney general’s office by requiring a legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. That would stop Evers and Kaul from fulfilling their campaign promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The two Democrats had made opposition to that lawsuit a central part of their campaigns.
The Legislature passed another measure to enact Medicaid work rules that Walker had recently won a federal waiver to establish. The bill would also give the Legislature oversight over the governor’s ability to seek future waivers for health care, a change Democrats said would handcuff the new administration.
The proposals come after North Carolina lawmakers took similar steps two years ago. Michigan Republicans also are discussing taking action before a Democratic governor takes over there.
Protesters have come and gone in the Capitol the past two days as lawmakers rushed to pass the bills. The tumult was reminiscent of much larger demonstrations in the opening weeks of Walker’s time as governor in 2011, when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
“The first thing Scott Walker did when he walked through the door of the Capitol was to create chaos,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from Middleton, said during the Senate debate. “The last thing he is doing is creating chaos.”
– Dan Shaw of The Daily Reporter and The Associated Press contributed to this report.