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GOP Senate leader looks at elections changes, moving away from retired judges

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The nonpartisan board that oversees elections in Wisconsin too often favors Democrats and needs to be reconstituted, perhaps with a more partisan model like what previously existed, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Monday.

The Government Accountability Board was at the center of recall elections over the past two years of Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and 12 state senators, since it was in charge of reviewing petitions and setting election dates. The board also handles ethics violations, campaign finance and lobbying reports and oversees elections across the state.

Fitzgerald said Republicans were particularly frustrated with how the board handled the recall elections.

“I just don’t think they’re an independent voice at all,” Fitzgerald said, renewing frequent GOP criticism of the panel comprised of six retired judges appointed by the governor. Fitzgerald’s brother, outgoing Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, made similar comments a year ago, but the Legislature took no action.

Republicans will again have majority control of both the Senate and Assembly when the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 7.

Incoming Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement that he was open to Fitzgerald’s ideas and others to improve the board. Both Vos and Fitzgerald voted in 2007, under a bipartisan deal, to create the board as it exists today. The only two votes in the Legislature against creating the board came from Assembly Democrats who are no longer in office.

Current Assembly Democratic leader Rep. Peter Barca lashed out at Fitzgerald’s suggestion for changing the board, calling it “anti-democracy legislation.”

“To me that seems laughable that retired judges wouldn’t be more independent than appointees would,” Barca said. “I don’t think it’s going to fly with the public, I think the public will see through this.”

The GAB was created in reaction to anger over how its predecessors, the Elections and Ethics boards, were working.

Ethics Board members were all appointed by the governor and officially nonpartisan. There was no pretense of nonpartisanship on the Elections Board, whose members were appointed by the governor, political parties, the state Supreme Court and legislative leaders of the state Assembly and Senate.

The Ethics Board was frequently derided as being weak and ineffectual while the Elections Board was seen as being too partisan.

But Fitzgerald said the GAB should look more like the Elections Board, with partisan political appointees.

That approach, he said, “seems to strike more of a balance than what we’re up against now.”

Too often, Fitzgerald said, the board defers to recommendations made by GAB staff. The judges don’t have enough information to go against the staff, so they typically side with them, he said.

Making the changes Fitzgerald suggests “would be a big step backward,” said David Deininger, one of the first members of the board and currently its chairman. Deininger, a former state appeals court judge from Green County, said the board has operated transparently, doesn’t always follow staff recommendations and upsets both Democrats and Republicans alike with its decisions.

“We are not approaching any decision from a political standpoint, but based on our based judgments about what the facts in the law require,” Deininger said. “From my perspective, we’ve caught it from both side based on the calls we make, just like referees at a Packers game.”

GAB director Kevin Kennedy did not immediately return a message seeking reaction.

When the board’s objectivity was criticized last year by Jeff Fitzgerald, Kennedy defended its makeup and operation.

“The current board members have more than 130 years of experience on the bench as trained decision makers, something the state did not have with the previous Elections Board, which was comprised of partisan political appointees,” Kennedy said in 2011. “The nonpartisan structure of the board and its staff has been validated since its inception, and particularly during the unprecedented election and political activity of the past 12 months.”

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