Calling Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board a “failed experiment,” Republican legislative leaders on Wednesday proposed splitting it into two commissions guided by partisans.
They also called for a sweeping revision of state campaign finance laws, one of the board’s areas of oversight.
The announcements signal an ambitious effort by GOP lawmakers to change how Wisconsin’s elections — and elected officials — are overseen.
Supporters said the GAB has overstepped its authority, and the new boards would be more publicly accountable. But critics of the bill said it would return Wisconsin to the model that predated the GAB, in which election and ethics laws proved difficult to enforce under partisan oversight.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Rep. Dean Knudson announced the proposal Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Vos, R-Rochester, accused the board of a series of lapses that necessitate its dismantling, including what he called an “unconstitutional investigation” — likely a reference to the secret John Doe investigation into coordination between Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups during the 2012 recall.
Republicans made public a summary of the legislation but not the actual bill.
Knudson, R-Hudson — author the Government Accountability Board bill — said it would split the board into two commissions. One would oversee elections and the other would monitor ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. The GAB oversees all of those areas.
Both of the new commissions would be overseen by partisans appointed by legislative leaders or the governor. That’s a shift from the current board, made up of six nonpartisan former judges appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. “We created (the GAB) with the best of intentions, but now it’s the time to make a change,” Vos said.
Rick Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, said the new commissions seem to be designed to deadlock, since it likely would be equally divided among partisan appointees. “In this hyper-polarized atmosphere, this looks to be a deliberate attempt to doom effective enforcement of Wisconsin election laws,” Hasen said.
Assembly Democrats also blasted the plan.
“Republicans want to turn our nationally respected system of nonpartisan watchdogs into partisan lapdogs,” Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement.
GAB executive director Kevin Kennedy and GAB chairman Gerald Nichol, a retired judge, said after the Republican news conference the board has performed honorably. “What this (bill) is about is control,” Kennedy said.
The proposal would require administrators of the new commissions to be confirmed by the state Senate, which now is made up of 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. It also ends the current practice of giving the board a blank check to investigate alleged violations of elections, ethics, lobbying or campaign finance laws.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t attend Wednesday’s news conference but told the State Journal on Tuesday that he supports the GAB proposal.
Gov. Scott Walker has said he supports dismantling and replacing the GAB. His spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in an email Wednesday that he “supports overall reform” of the board. She didn’t say what Walker thinks about Knudson’s proposal.
Under the proposal, both the elections and ethics boards would be made up of at least six members. Board members would be added to represent third parties if their gubernatorial candidate received at least 10 percent of the vote in the most recent election.
For both boards, four members would be appointed by legislative leaders. Republican and Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate each would appoint one member. Two more members of both boards would be appointed by the governor from candidates nominated by legislative leaders. For the elections board, the two gubernatorial appointees would be former local election clerks.
Democrats on Wednesday charged that Knudson’s bill would not guarantee the new commissions would be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The bill doesn’t clearly state if the governor must appoint one Republican and one Democrat to each commission.
Knudson, speaking late Wednesday, said that is his intent, and that the bill language will be changed to ensure it.
GAB supporters say the existing board is a national model for clean government, due to its nonpartisan model and how it allows the board to aggressively investigate alleged violations. The board was created in 2007 in the wake of the Wisconsin caucus scandal, in which top lawmakers of both parties were accused of illegally running political campaigns out of their legislative offices.
The 2007 vote to create the GAB was bipartisan and nearly unanimous. In contrast, the bill unveiled Wednesday appears to be supported only by Republicans, said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause Wisconsin.
GAB critics, nearly all of whom are Republicans, say the board has not acted impartially. Calls for the board to be dismantled increased after the state Supreme Court ruled this summer to end the John Doe investigation into Walker’s 2012 campaign. The GAB assisted with the inquiry.
Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said the GAB was created with the premise of removing politics from elections and campaign finance oversight. But Esenberg said recent charges of partisanship against GAB administrators in the John Doe investigation undermine that premise.