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Evers sues GOP lawmakers for blocking UW employee raises, other ‘legislative vetoes’

Suit alleges Republican legislators have repeatedly overstepped their authority, violating the Wisconsin Constitution's 'separation of powers'

Gov. Tony Evers looks ahead as he speaks.
Gov. Tony Evers speaks before signing the 2023-2025 biennial budget Wednesday, July 5, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Gov. Tony Evers filed a lawsuit against Republican state lawmakers Tuesday, claiming their decisions to block pay raises for employees of the Universities of Wisconsin, conservation projects and updates to the state’s commercial building standards are unconstitutional.

In a statement announcing the move, Evers said Republicans are “unconstitutionally and unlawfully obstructing basic government functions” by blocking raises for around 35,000 UW System employees until state universities eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion staff and programs, known as DEI.

“When the Republicans decided that 35,000 people that work for the UW System shouldn’t get a raise without having any legislation, that that gives them that authority, that’s just bulls—,” Evers told reporters.

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Pay raises for employees of state universities were approved by Republicans and signed into law by Evers in July as part of the state’s 2023-25 budget. On Oct. 17, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employee Relations, co-chaired by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, decided not to pass raises for UW workers. At the same time, the committee signed off on raises for other state employees.

Evers called the move “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“They went too far,” Evers said. “You know, it’s one thing to mess around with the decision that was made about purchasing land. But when we mess with people’s lives like that, that was the coup de grâce.”

Evers’ lawsuit comes just months after liberals took control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years, though Evers said that did not factor into his decision to file the case now.

In a written statement, Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman said the stakes for Wisconsin’s economic future rely on universities’ ability to develop talent and “the less we are subject to ongoing political disputes, the better we can do our job.”

“As I have said from the beginning, it was unprecedented to withhold pay from our employees as part of a political disagreement between two separate branches of government,” Rothman said. “I am deeply troubled by our faculty and staff being stuck in the middle of this dispute. While it is not our lawsuit, it’s time for this whole ordeal that is blocking pay for our employees to come to an end”

The lawsuit, filed by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul on behalf of Evers, along with a host of state agencies and boards, also focuses on GOP actions to block 27 conservation projects funded through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. Evers’ lawsuit also argues Republicans overstepped their authority on administrative rules related to commercial building standards and ethics standards for social workers and counselors.

The case claims GOP lawmakers are violating the Wisconsin Constitution’s “well-defined separation of powers” by creating more and more “legislative vetoes” made by committees made up of a handful of legislators.

“The state Legislature has given legislative committees a veto over a wide range of executive branch activity, concentrating executive power in small subsets of the Legislature,” Kaul said. “In the case filed today, we argue that, as courts in other jurisdictions have, the Wisconsin Supreme Court should hold that legislative vetoes of executive branch acts are unconstitutional.”

Evers’ administration is petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case as an original action, effectively asking the court’s new liberal majority to bypass lower courts.

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Vos accused Evers and Kaul of “an attempt to eliminate” raises given to all state employees by the Legislature.

“In a time of unprecedented inflation brought on by reckless Democrat spending, we think it is abhorrent that the Governor would try and take away lawfully approved money for hardworking state employees,” Vos said.

When asked for clarification, a spokesperson for Vos told Wisconsin Public Radio that because Evers’ lawsuit seeks to invalidate the process used by the Legislature to approve pay raises, it has the potential of “wiping out approved raises if the court rules in favor of the Governor.” A spokesperson for Evers rejected that claim.

State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the Senate would defend the duties of the Legislature and called Evers’ lawsuit “frivolous.”

“The Governor is working to diminish the the voice of Wisconsinites by limiting the authority of the legislature and unduly strengthening his own administration,” LeMahieu said.

Editor’s note: WPR staff are employees of UW-Madison.