Senate Republican leaders are keeping a tight wrap on forthcoming changes to bills splitting the state’s elections and ethics agency and rewriting campaign finance law — both of which appear headed for a Senate vote Friday in a so-called “extraordinary session.”
The office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, signaled Tuesday that changes will be offered to the bills in extraordinary session, since Thursday marks the end of lawmakers’ scheduled period to convene. Proponents of the bills have said it’s important to pass them this fall, in advance of the 2016 election cycle.
Fitzgerald said Wednesday the Senate has the votes to pass the ethics and elections bill.
An impasse among GOP senators over the bills may have broken Tuesday in a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans, after which plans for Friday’s extraordinary session were announced.
But Senate GOP leaders since have declined to reveal what changes to the bills may have been agreed upon.
The secretive process has opponents of the bill — which include Democrats and nonpartisan government transparency groups — fuming.
“In my 20 years at Common Cause ... it is the most abusive and disrespectful process I’ve ever witnessed,” said Jay Heck, director of the group Common Cause in Wisconsin. “It’s almost like: ‘Too bad, public. Too bad, media. We’ve got the votes.’ ”
The office of Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Wednesday the Assembly will hold an extraordinary session Nov. 16, at which it could consider Senate changes to the bills.
Earlier this week Assembly leaders suggested they would meet next week to consider the changes.
The Assembly passed both bills Oct. 21, less than two weeks after they were introduced. One would split the Government Accountability Board, made up of six nonpartisan former judges, into two new commissions staffed by partisan appointees.
The other would relax campaign finance regulations with the most substantial rewrite in decades of state campaign finance law.
Until now the Senate has moved more deliberately with the bills than the Assembly, amid concerns with the makeup of the proposed new commissions and unspecified concerns with the campaign finance bill.
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Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, the Assembly author of the GAB bill, said he was told that Senate Republicans reached consensus Tuesday on adding two former judges to the proposed new ethics commission. He said it’s not clear how the former judges would be appointed or if the commission would have six or eight members.
Knudson’s original concept for the new commissions also included some former judges, though that was absent from the bill that passed the Assembly last month.
That bill called for splitting the GAB into two commissions, one overseeing elections and the other, ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. Both would be made up of at least six members appointed by legislative leaders and the governor, with three of the members being Republican appointees and three Democratic appointees.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, was the only Senate Republican to respond Wednesday to State Journal inquiries about the proposed Senate changes to the bills.
Olsen said including former judges on the ethics commission would make it less likely that the commission would deadlock on important votes.
That has been a key concern of many of the bill’s critics, who said the proposed commissions — being split equally between Democrats and Republicans — are destined to deadlock on virtually every vote.
“Either side will have to convince both judges,” Olsen said. “There’s a way to get out of gridlock, and that’s where we were concerned.”
Olsen said Senate Republicans aren’t mulling other substantial changes to the GAB bill.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which has lobbied for the campaign finance and GAB bills, said in a statement Wednesday that the state should not maintain a role for former judges in campaign finance oversight.
“We strongly support GAB reform and believe the use of retired judges as campaign finance regulators is a failed model,” said Scott Manley, a spokesman for the organization.
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, meanwhile, blasted GOP lawmakers for holding an extraordinary session to consider the bills.
Democrats have called the campaign finance bill the “incumbent protection act” and have said it will flood Wisconsin campaigns with money from corporations and other sources.
Barca and other Democrats said they will offer a constitutional amendment that would require any bills that would pad lawmakers’ campaigns — as Democrats have said the campaign finance bill would do — to not take effect until after the two-year period in which the bill passed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.