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Senate Republicans take cautious tack on GAB, campaign finance bills
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Senate Republicans take cautious tack on GAB, campaign finance bills

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Undecided Senate Republicans are grappling with pressure from groups on opposing sides of bills to replace the state’s Government Accountability Board and rewrite state campaign finance law.

The GOP-controlled Assembly voted largely on party lines to pass the bills last week, less than two weeks after they were introduced.

But the Senate, also under Republican control, isn’t rushing to get the bills to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker.

“I don’t think there’s any sense of urgency, at least on my part,” Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said Tuesday. “I’m still studying the options.”

“It’s more important to do it right than to hurry it,” Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Board bill has been stalled, in part, by concerns about the makeup of the two new boards it would create to replace the GAB.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told WKOW-TV that he and other senators have qualms with the campaign finance bill — particularly how it addresses whether outside advocacy groups can work closely with candidates for office.

Marklein is one of six senators cited by the group Common Cause in Wisconsin as possible holdouts on the bills. The others are Sens. Rob Cowles of Green Bay, Luther Olsen of Ripon, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon and Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls.

A recent mass email from Common Cause in Wisconsin urges recipients to contact the senators and tell them to oppose the bills.

Meanwhile, a board member of the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth, Eric O’Keefe, has launched a telephone call campaign urging voters to contact Harsdorf, Olsen, Petrowski and Cowles and urge them to support the GAB replacement bill.

The bill would split the GAB into two new boards, one overseeing elections and the other, ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. Both would be headed by partisan appointees, unlike the GAB, made up of nonpartisan former judges.

With the campaign finance bill, some senators may be eyeing how it treats so-called “issue advocacy” groups. Such groups can run ads promoting political issues, which may mention candidates or elected officials — so long as they don’t explicitly call for supporting or defeating a candidate or elected official.

WKOW-27 reported that Fitzgerald said there are concerns with the fact that the bill permits such groups to freely coordinate their activities with candidates. The measure bans coordination between candidates and so-called “express advocacy” groups, which explicitly call on voters to support or oppose a candidate.

Spokeswoman Myranda Tanck downplayed those comments but declined to elaborate or make Fitzgerald available for an interview.

The coordination issue was at the heart of the John Doe investigation into Walker’s 2012 recall election campaign, which the state Supreme Court ended in July.

Prosecutors investigated the Walker campaign for coordinating with conservative advocacy groups. But the state Supreme Court ruling said the investigation was unwarranted and the coordination was legal.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and others have said the court ruling condones coordination with issue advocacy groups, though not all experts agree the ruling is clear in that regard.

Asked if he supports Vos’ push to formally permit such coordination in state law, Fitzgerald told WKOW-27: “No. I think what we’re all looking for is something that meets up with both federal and state law.

“If you asked a lot of elected officials — it’s not really a responsibility or something they want looming over them, “Fitzgerald added. “Some people think it would create this kind of gray area. ... I don’t want that and I don’t think a lot of elected officials want that.”

Tiffany said he strongly supports the GAB bill but thinks the campaign finance bill needs work. Tiffany said he wants more discussion about one of the bill’s key changes: allowing unlimited corporate contributions to political parties and legislative campaign committees, the political arms of the legislative caucuses, so long as the contributions go into segregated funds.

Tiffany declined to comment on the issue advocacy coordination issue, saying he hasn’t studied it fully. But he added: “I’m not surprised that that’s another wrinkle.”

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