GAB

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has come under fire, and Republicans who control the Legislature want to overhaul it.

Wisconsin’s election agency moved Wednesday to make a series of changes in response to a state audit, but leaders said that Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget could set the efforts back.

“We appreciate the governor’s efforts to streamline the budget, but this could cripple our effectiveness in providing services to voters,” Government Accountability Board director and general counsel Kevin Kennedy told board members.

The GAB is one of several state agencies that would see its budget, finance, human resources, payroll, procurement and information technology functions consolidated as part of a pilot program that would be operated by the state Department of Administration.

Kennedy said the GAB’s specialized information technology needs are a poor fit for the program. The GAB administers a statewide voter registration database and a variety of services for voters in addition to tracking lobbyists and election campaign money.

Ross Hein, an election division administrator, said the proposal would require him to instruct DOA officials on highly technical specifications so that they could turn around and hire and supervise information technology workers to replace the contractors the agency is using now.

The DOA did a poor job a few years ago when it was supposed to create the GAB’s lobbyist database and website, said Jonathan Becker, administrator of the agency’s ethics and accountability division.

Midway through the two-year project, DOA reassigned the person building the website to a project that it considered to have higher priority, Becker said.

The project was incomplete after two years and nearly $200,000, so GAB hired a contractor who finished the work and has been maintaining and improving it since, Becker said.

Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for DOA, declined to comment on the website project but said the pilot program would be beneficial by consolidating “back office” functions. “The shared services pilot program will make government more efficient, effective and provide a better value service for taxpayers,” Werwie said.

The retired judges who make up the GAB board on Wednesday agreed to send a letter to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee requesting that the agency be given two years to complete information technology projects.

Kennedy said he was especially concerned about any interruption in the ongoing modernization of the statewide voter registration database before the 2016 presidential election.

The board also agreed that the letter should request that only one of two finance administrators at the GAB be moved into the consolidated program. Both of them have a variety of duties aside from finance responsibilities, Kennedy said.

The Legislative Audit Bureau report in December recommended improvements in the nonpartisan GAB programs.

The GAB administers election records and state laws governing campaign money, ethics and lobbying.

Leading Republicans who are talking about overhauling the agency seized on the report to press their complaints about the GAB’s handling of more than a dozen recall elections in 2011 and 2012 and its role in a secret John Doe probe into coordination involving Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative advocacy groups.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have said change is needed. Their spokeswomen didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Kennedy said the agency is understaffed but has done its job during a difficult period.

Kennedy and other GAB administrators reported on work that has been done to improve the agency’s links with the Department of Corrections to reduce the chances of felons voting illegally and several other measures responsive to the audit.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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