09VetsDay100-11112015165820 (copy)

Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the Operation Welcome Home Veterans Day Ceremony at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, November 11, 2015. AMBER ARNOLD -- State Journal

Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday signed into law a pair of bills altering Wisconsin's campaign finance and election oversight rules.

Republicans who supported the legislation say the changes are necessary to bring the state's statutes in line with court rulings and to protect First Amendment rights to free speech. Democrats argue the bills, along with one limiting the scope of crimes that can be investigated in John Doe probes, will open the door for corruption and expand the influence of money in politics.

The bills were approved by the Legislature in October and November. They were among 10 bills Walker signed on Wednesday.

The first of the two proposals splits the state Government Accountability Board into two agencies, both run by a bipartisan panel of appointees rather than the retired judges who currently oversee elections and ethics issues. 

According to Walker's office, he used his partial veto powers to modify the GAB bill. 

"The Governor exercised a partial veto to ensure that the Governor’s office receives an adequate number of nominations for the commission appointments of county or municipal clerks and former judges," said a release from his office.

The new ethics board will include one member appointed by the Senate majority leader, one by the Senate minority leader, one by the Assembly speaker and one appointed by the Assembly minority leader. It will also include two members representing both major political parties. Legislative leadership in both parties will prepare a list of three nominees each, and the governor will choose one from each list. Walker's partial veto clarified that he will be given exactly three names, rather than "up to three." 

Two former judges will also sit on the new ethics board.

The makeup for the new elections board will be the same as the ethics board, but the two members selected by the governor will be former municipal or county clerks representing each political party.

Current GAB board members and staff plan to "do everything we can to ensure a smooth transition and ensure the new commissions get up to speed," said GAB director Kevin Kennedy in a statement. But Kennedy said there are still "many" unanswered questions about the transition.

The new commissions are scheduled to be in place five months before the November 2016 presidential election. 

"We are professionals who care deeply about serving voters, local election officials, candidates and officeholders, and the lobbying community," Kennedy said. "Our commitment is to ensure continuity of service during the transition."

The second bill will significantly reshape the state's campaign finance rules.

As introduced, the campaign finance legislation would have allowed corporations, unions and Indian tribes to give unlimited contributions to political parties and campaign committees. After changes made in the Legislature and approved by the governor, those contributions are capped at $12,000 per year.

Campaign donors will no longer be required to disclose their employer, under the legislation. Instead, they will only be required to list their occupation. Under existing law, donors who give more than $200 are required to list both pieces of information.

The bill bans candidates from coordinating with outside groups on express advocacy — calls to vote "for or against" a candidate — but places no restrictions on coordination on issue advocacy. Issue advocacy avoids telling voters to elect or defeat a candidate and instead focuses on a candidate's policies. The state Supreme Court ruled in July that kind of coordination is legal, as a matter of free speech.

The bill also attempts to more narrowly define what kind of interactions are prohibited between candidates and express advocacy groups.

Democrats criticized the governor for not signing the bills in a public ceremony.

“With mass layoffs at a five-year high, we should be focused on helping Wisconsin families rather than corrupt politicians and special interests,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, in a statement. “It’s disappointing that Gov. Walker and Legislative Republicans continue to undermine our state’s proud tradition of clean, open and honest government instead of focusing on ways to move Wisconsin forward.”

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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