Republican dominance hits mark not seen in half century

Posted at 11:55 AM, Dec 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-27 12:55:33-05
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- For the first time in nearly half a century, Republicans in 2017 will control the Wisconsin Legislature, the governor's office and the presidency in a GOP supersizing that could speed the state's conservative transformation of the last few years.
Wisconsin legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker are practically giddy at the prospect of working closely with president-elect Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Janesville, and Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, who used to run the state Republican Party.
It's the first time since Richard Nixon was president and Warren Knowles was governor, in 1970, that Republicans have controlled the executive and legislative branches in Wisconsin at the same time a fellow Republican has been president. Trump's road to the White House was paved with his victory in Wisconsin, the first for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Conservatives also have a 5-2 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, giving the GOP a friendly venue for whatever legal challenges may be brought against their policies.
"This is the fantasy conservatives have had for generations and now is their moment," said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state representative who joined the Assembly in 1976, shortly before Democrats took a similarly commanding position.
Lee expected Republicans to take advantage.
"I think we'll see more efforts to restrict labor unions in the private sector, more efforts to do what the business sector wants and environmentalists don't, more efforts to cut regulations across the board and more efforts to reshape the university," Lee said.
Walker and Republican leaders are poised to work closely with Trump, Ryan and Republicans nationally -- including newly re-elected Sen. Ron Johnson -- on a series of priorities designed to strengthen state government's power.
Walker in December sent Trump a letter requesting his help with a number of conservative priorities that he may or may not be able to quickly address, like giving the state more authority over refugee resettlement, removing obstacles to drug-testing food stamp recipients and loosening clean air requirements.
"We look forward to partnering with you to change the course of the federal and state relationship," Walker wrote to Trump.
Walker, Ryan and Trump's incoming administration have also talked about giving states more leeway with how they spend federal money on massive programs like Medicaid, transportation and education by delivering the money through block grants rather than earmarked for specific programs or projects.
A weakened Wisconsin Democratic Party, which returns to the Legislature with their lowest numbers since 1957 in the Assembly and 1971 in the Senate, are trying to chart a course with no real ability to stop what Walker and Republicans want to do.
"I think the Republicans are going to overreach," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jen Shilling. "They are going to make mistakes."
Shilling said Democrats, who have just 13 seats out of 33 in the Senate, will focus on holding Republicans accountable and try to keep them working on issues affecting the middle class. That includes infrastructure, income security, health care, the University of Wisconsin and public schools, she said.
Walker and Republican legislative leaders have the votes to do whatever they want, but they're already showing signs of internal strife.
Faced with a $1 billion shortfall in the Department of Transportation budget, Walker has ruled out any gas tax or vehicle registration fee increases without a corresponding tax cut elsewhere. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Assembly Republicans argue everything, including tolling and tax and fee increases, should be considered.
Plugging that shortfall, while debating the next two-year state budget Walker will introduce in February, will drive legislative debate for the year. Walker says his priority is workforce development, but Republican lawmakers have already signaled they want to push other ideas, like breaking up the state Department of Natural Resources, barring transgender students from using bathrooms for the sex they identify with and restricting early voting times.