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Republicans call elections board ‘failed experiment’

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s unique nonpartisan elections and government ethics oversight board is a failed experiment that has not lived up to expectations, Republicans who support moving to a new partisan model argued at a joint legislative hearing Tuesday.

But opponents countered that creating separate partisan oversight boards for elections and ethics to replace the nearly 8-year-old Government Accountability Board would weaken regulation and lead to more corruption going undetected.

The bill would do away with the GAB as of June 30, replacing it with separate ethics and elections commissions run by an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees.

The bill would create a “partisan lapdog” and a “toothless agency” similar to what was in place after five former legislators were convicted of campaigning illegally in the so-called caucus scandal of 2002, said Rep. Jocasta Zamarripa, a Democrat from Milwaukee.

“It’s a huge mistake you’re making,” she said.

Republican sponsors ticked off a list of problems with the current oversight agency, and said the partisan makeup they envision for new elections and ethics boards would be a better and more honest approach.

“Despite repeated accusations that this bill is a partisan takeover or power grab, there is absolutely no evidence to back up that claim,” said bill sponsor Rep. Dean Knudson, a Republican from Hudson. “Rather than be a national model, Wisconsin’s failed experiment has become a national embarrassment.”

Unlike most states, where partisan office holders oversee elections, in Wisconsin that is the duty of the Government Accountability Board. The board also oversees the state’s ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws.

Republicans pushing for change argue that it’s nonpartisan in name only, and they point to its involvement in the now closed John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups during the recall elections in 2011 and 2012.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the investigation in July, saying it was unconstitutional. Supporters of doing away with the GAB point to that decision as proof that it’s exceeded its authority, acting as an advocate rather than a regulator.

Knudson and Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Republican from Wauwatosa, said the proposal was not solely in response to the board’s involvement with the John Doe probe, but also in reaction to a series of inconsistent rulings, failure to do checks on whether felons were voting or close hundreds of investigations.

“The only thing the GAB has been consistent about is being inconsistent,” Vukmir said.

Government watchdog group Common Cause of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, liberal group One Wisconsin Now and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell were among those who registered opposition to the measure.

At the start of the hearing, the only entity registering in support was the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

The vote to create the Government Accountability Board, in 2007, was nearly unanimous with only two Democrats in the 132-member Legislature voting against it.

Vukmir, who now wants to do away with the board, was among those who voted for it in 2007.

“It was naive to think you could have a nonpartisan board and sometimes we have to admit we made a mistake,” she said Tuesday.

Walker has voiced support for doing away with the current board and moving back to a partisan system, but has not said whether he backs all of the changes as proposed in the bill.

The proposal is moving quickly through the Republican-controlled Legislature and could be voted on in the Senate and Assembly as early as next week. Democrats objected to the hearing, saying there wasn’t enough time to fully understand the proposal given that it had been introduced just four days earlier.

The bill would take effect just over four months before the November presidential election. Opponents argue that is not enough time before the election to effectively switch to a new system.

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