Republicans seek to withhold pay for state appointees who remain past the end of their terms

MADISON – Republican lawmakers are proposing to withhold the salary of state officials who continue working beyond the expiration of their term — a measure that would cut paychecks to the state’s top election official if signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The proposal comes after a protracted battle between Republicans who control the state Legislature and the Wisconsin Elections Commission over whether commission administrator Meagan Wolfe should keep her job amid pressure from supporters of former President Donald Trump who have targeted Wolfe as a symbol of false claims of election fraud during the 2020 election.

The bill also would have applied to a former Department of Natural Resources Board chairman who also stayed in his position beyond the expiration of his term — a move that triggered a lawsuit and subsequent court ruling that has allowed Wolfe to stay in her job legally.

“There is no constitutional or statutory prohibition on a holdover period after an incumbent’s term has expired, meaning that the incumbent doesn’t need to go through the appointment or confirmation process to retain their position. Instead, they can remain in that position until an appointee is confirmed,” the four lawmakers wrote in a memo to colleagues seeking support.

“As we have seen, if the appointing authority or Senate fails to act, the holdover may stay in office as long as they would like while continuing to receive a taxpayer-funded paycheck,” the lawmakers wrote. “(The bill) seeks to hold political appointees in an executive branch position accountable by withholding their salary and other payments 90 days after the expiration of their term.”

The bill is proposed by Republican Sens. Duey Stroebel of Town of Cedarburg and Romaine Quinn of Cameron and GOP Reps. Dave Maxey of New Berlin and Tom Michalski of Elm Grove.

The bill would cut off salaries and other state-funded payments to the officials holding over after 90 days. It applies only to officials within the executive branch, which covers Wolfe, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe speaks at a Keep Our Republic voting education event in La Crosse on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe speaks at a Keep Our Republic voting education event in La Crosse on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Wolfe oversees an election agency that has been under fire for three years because of false claims put forward by Trump to convince supporters he actually won an election he lost and because of policies commissioners approved during the 2020 presidential election to navigate hurdles presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020 by about 21,000 votes in Wisconsin — a result that has been confirmed by two recounts paid by Trump, state audits, a partisan review, a conservative study and multiple lawsuits.

But Trump, who is all but assured to be the 2024 GOP presidential nominee, has continued to lie about the result of Wisconsin’s last presidential election, bolstering the beliefs of those who do not believe Biden is a legitimate president, many of whom have made Wolfe the symbol of the false claims because of her position at the elections commission.

At the same time, some Republican lawmakers have also targeted Wolfe because of actions the bipartisan panel of six commissioners voted to take during the coronavirus pandemic at a time when health officials were advising people to avoid crowds, and for some voting practices that have since been deemed illegal through lawsuits.

In September, the state Senate in a party-line vote rejected the appointment of Wolfe. Minutes after the vote, Kaul filed a lawsuit asking a judge to block Republican legislative leaders from appointing a new administrator and to declare Wolfe administrator, arguing the Senate did not have the power to oust her. Meanwhile, Wolfe said she would not leave her job until a court told her to do so.

Separately, a week after the Senate vote to fire Wolfe five Republicans in the state Assembly proposed articles to remove Wolfe from office through impeachment, an effort that so far hasn’t advanced in the Assembly.

More: PolitiFact: Impeachment articles against Meagan Wolfe riddled with false and misleading claims

Even though lawmakers voted Wolfe out, she stayed in her job because the vote to fire her isn’t being recognized by Wolfe or many Democrats as legitimate. That’s because the Republican-controlled state Senate forced a vote on Wolfe’s future even though the bipartisan elections commission charged with hiring her did not put forward a nomination of Wolfe to consider.

When Wolfe’s term expired in June, the six members of the commission agreed Wolfe should stay in her job but failed to find consensus on how to respond to an effort by Senate Republicans to oust her.

Ultimately, the commission did not put forward the four votes required by law to reappoint Wolfe, with Democratic commissioners arguing a recent state Supreme Court ruling that allows such officials to stay in their positions beyond the expiration of their terms protects Wolfe’s job.

Senate Republicans decided to move forward anyway. LeMahieu contended the 3-0 commission vote that resulted in a failed motion to reappoint Wolfe was actually enough votes to reappoint Wolfe, even though state law says such votes require a majority of commissioners, or four votes.

The matter ended up in court, where Republican lawmakers conceded Wolfe was lawfully staying in her job. The commission has not held a vote or a discussion on Wolfe’s future since June.

Wolfe and WEC chairman Don Millis declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Evers did not immediately have a reaction to the bill.

Laura Schulte of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Molly Beck can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: GOP targets pay for state appointees who remain past their terms

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