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Special election reimbursement bill has support of GOP-led Senate, Tony Evers
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SPECIAL ELECTIONS

Special election reimbursement bill has support of GOP-led Senate, Tony Evers

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A bipartisan bill could shift the financial burden of an upcoming special election off the clerks in more than 20 counties and onto the state — if the proposal can pass the state Assembly before the Legislature adjourns.

While the legislation seems to have stalled in the Assembly, Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, said he remains hopeful the bill could pass in time for the upcoming special election for the 7th Congressional District in May. The bill unanimously passed the Senate months ago and has been touted by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as a legislative priority.

“I don’t think the door is closed by any means,” said Jacque, who co-authored the bill with Sens. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, and Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee.

Under the bill, the state would reimburse local clerks for the cost of conducting special elections, which can include printing ballots and paying poll workers. Local entities still would pay for regularly scheduled elections such as the spring primary or general election.

Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said communities plan their budgets for primary and general elections but have limited flexibility for unexpected special elections.

“When you have a shock to the system like an additional election you’re not planning on … that’s an unbudgeted expense and really throws a wrench into some of the things that you were trying to do fiscally both in general at the macro level standpoint, but also a micro level standpoint,” Koles said.”It means something else doesn’t get done.”

A fiscal estimate by the Department of Administration does not project how much special election reimbursements would cost the state. The Wisconsin Elections Commission does not currently collect election cost data from municipal and county elections.

“If the WEC was directed to reimburse local election offices … costs specific to the election type would need to be collected,” the fiscal report states. “It may be possible to deduce the cost of a smaller election by determining a per-voter cost to adjust for the scale of an election for a smaller jurisdiction.”

The fiscal report does estimate a price tag of about $90,000 to administer a reimbursement program in a statewide election or primary.

Jacque said it’s difficult to estimate the full financial impact of the bill, as costs will vary from election to election.

For the May 12 special election to fill a vacant seat in northwest Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, for example, voters in 21 counties — plus portions of another five counties — will take to the polls.

Jacque said the financial burden would be much easier to swallow at the state level.

“It’s recognizing the fact that the state is mandating these elections at the local level but at this point is not helping to pay for them,” Jacque said.

In a legislative priorities letter to the Legislature Thursday, Evers included the special election reimbursement bill as one of several bills he hopes to see pass before the session adjourns.

“The state should be helping out local municipalities that have to run special elections,” Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal on Wednesday. “Frankly, it’s a cheap investment in democracy. If we’re going to have elections, we want to do them right. We don’t want to hamstring some small town in northern Wisconsin when the state can play a role in making sure that those elections are held.”

The Senate unanimously passed the bill in October. Later that month, Evers called on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to push through the bipartisan effort.

Also in October, a spokeswoman for Vos said the reimbursement legislation was available to be scheduled in the Assembly and would be taken up.

However, the measure did not come up in the Assembly’s three floor sessions that followed the bill’s passage in the Senate last year.

Vos’ office did not respond to requests for comment. Last month Vos told The Capital Times he was “less interested” in the reimbursement bill, but added that the caucus had not yet discussed the legislation.

“It sounds like maybe some things got lost in translation and it sounds like (the bill) maybe is not necessarily the guarantee that it sounded like previously. So we’re kind of working through that,” Jacque said. “I’m hopeful that’s something that we’ll still be able to get done here.”

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