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View from around the state: Sensible GOP senators should save the GAB

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

When his Republican colleagues were stuffing the state budget with non-fiscal policies that didn’t belong there, state Sen. Rob Cowles wisely objected.

“These items should be stripped out and discussed with public discourse in committees through separate legislation,” he said.

The Green Bay Republican also called out his peers for trying to gut Wisconsin’s open records law.

“I will not support a budget that includes this assault on democracy,” he declared.

Another senator who has risen above partisan politics to support good-government principles is Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls. Back when GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson was vetoing individual letters to spell out new words in state budgets (the “Vanna White” veto), Harsdorf voted to curtail the offensive practice.

That gave her the high ground nearly two decades later to further limit veto abuse. Harsdorf led the successful fight to ban the “Frankenstein” veto, used by Gov. Jim Doyle to stitch words together from across pages of the state budget and write new sentences from scratch.

A third GOP senator who has shown similar backbone at times is Luther Olsen of Ripon. He co-sponsored the bill to ban politicians of all stripes from seeking campaign cash during the state budget process.

All three of these senators supported the creation of an independent and nonpartisan Government Accountability Board nearly a decade ago in the wake of the caucus scandal, which sent several top lawmakers to jail.

For that matter, every Republican (and most Democrats) voted to create the GAB in 2007. The Legislature replaced a dysfunctional and partisan elections board with a much stronger panel of retired judges who were insulated from politics as much as possible. The GAB also gained the power to launch investigations without the Legislature’s permission.

Gov. Scott Walker, now a candidate for president, joined a chorus of conservative voices last month calling for replacement of the GAB, which oversees campaign finance, elections, ethics and lobbying laws. Undoubtedly, any change would make this independent and nonpartisan watchdog agency weaker and more obedient to the politicians in power.

Walker’s support for undermining the GAB is disappointing, though not surprising. Walker didn’t like GAB participation in an investigation of his recall campaign, claiming it was a partisan witch hunt. That’s silly, because two Republican district attorneys and a Republican special prosecutor also were involved. Moreover, most of the GAB judges were appointed by Walker, and half once served as GOP elected officials.

The good news is Walker can’t dismantle the GAB without support from the Legislature. And in the Senate, Republicans hold a 19-14 majority. So, if Democrats, as expected, vote in unison against any plan to weaken the agency, three Republicans in defense of Wisconsin’s good-government traditions can quash this misguided attack.

Cowles, Harsdorf and Olsen should stand up for the GAB and its noble mission, even if they have disagree with some of the board’s decisions or dislike its director.

Another GOP senator who should do the right thing — and who has shown flashes of independence — is Howard Marklein of Spring Green.

Republicans won’t hold power forever in Wisconsin. And when they don’t, they’ll be thanking those few strong-willed GOP senators who kept good-government protections in place.

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