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Republicans introduce bill to reform elections board (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans moved Wednesday to assert more control over Wisconsin elections, introducing bills that would dramatically re-shape the state elections board and rewrite campaign finance law.

The GOP has been talking for months about overhauling the Government Accountability Board, a group of six retired nonpartisan judges that oversees state elections and administers ethics laws. The party is furious with the board over how it handled recall elections and its involvement in a secret investigation into Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.

Assembly Republicans introduced a bill that would erase the GAB and crate two new commissions. One would oversee elections, the other ethics laws. Each commission would be led by a board of six partisan appointees.

“Today we are beginning the process of ending the failed experiment known as the Government Accountability Board,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said during a state Capitol news conference. “We created it with the best of intentions, but now it’s time to make a change.”

Common Cause in Wisconsin, a government watchdog group that helped draft legislation creating the GAB, issued a statement saying the bill would transform a model agency into “a toothless backwater state agency completely under the control of partisan politicians.”

Under the bill, four members of each commission would be picked by legislative leaders, with half chosen by Democrats and half by Republicans. The governor would appoint the final two members of each board, one from each party. Two members of the elections board would have to be former municipal or county clerks. Both commissions would need approval from the Legislature’s powerful budget committee to spend more than $25,000 on an investigation.

The bill would take Wisconsin back to the days before the GAB was created, when separate boards made up of party appointees administered elections and ethics laws. Those boards were widely seen as weak and ineffective. The Legislature replaced those boards with the GAB in 2007. Lawmakers made the move after five former legislators were convicted of campaigning illegally and polls showed the public was losing faith in lawmakers’ honesty.

But GAB critics contend that the board has routinely exceeded its authority, acting as an advocate rather than a regulator. The board’s decision to hire Kevin Kennedy, who led the old elections board, as director created concerns about whether the board was really charting a new path.

More complaints came after Democrats upset with Walker’s law stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights forced a number of Republicans, including the governor, into recall elections in 2011 and 2012. Concerns ranged from how the elections were scheduled to a decision not to independently verify every signature on petitions that forced the elections.

Republicans are especially incensed with the GAB for helping Milwaukee prosecutors investigate whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups. The conservative-leaning state Supreme Court ruled this summer that the probe was unconstitutional.

The high court said Walker’s camp coordinated on “issue advocacy” — political speak for communications that don’t specifically call for a candidate’s election or defeat — that amounted to free speech. No one was ever charged, but the investigation generated ugly headlines for the governor.

Kennedy and GAB Chairman Gerald Nichol, a retired judge, said after the Republican news conference that the board has performed honorably.

“What this (bill) is about is control,” Kennedy said.

Vos, the Assembly speaker, said he hopes the bill will become law before the year’s end. The measure’s prospects look good: Republicans hold a 63-36 advantage in the Assembly and a 19-14 edge in the Senate.

Walker’s spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday that Walker looked forward to working with lawmakers on replacing the GAB, but stopped short of saying the governor supported the bill.

If the bill becomes law, the changes would take effect June 30. Rep. Dean Knudson, the Hudson Republican who authored the bill, said he believed the new commissions would have time to prepare for the 2016 fall elections because GAB staff would remain on board.

Minority Democrats blasted the proposal, saying Republicans would rather consolidate their power than deal with real issues like school funding and student loan debt.

“No one has ever come up to me at a grocery store or gas station and suggested that we need less accountability and more partisanship in our state,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement.

Assembly Republicans also introduced a bill Monday that would rework the state’s campaign finance laws.

The measure would double contribution limits to candidates: Individuals would be allowed to give up to $20,000 annually to constitutional officers such as the governor and attorney general; $2,000 to state Senate candidates; and $1,000 to state Assembly candidates. The bill also allows for adjustments every five years to account for inflation.

The bill also makes changes to reflect a federal appellate court decision last year that found major portions of Wisconsin campaign finance law unconstitutional. Under the bill, legislative campaign committee and political party contributions to candidates would be unlimited. Contributions to political action committees and political parties would be unlimited as well.

Corporations, unions and tribes would be prohibited from contributing to committees. Candidates would not be allowed to coordinate with outside groups on so-called express advocacy, communications that call for voters to elect or defeat a specific candidate. It doesn’t impose any regulations on issue advocacy, reflecting the Supreme Court’s decision ending the Walker probe.

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