By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Three Republican-backed proposals to eliminate Wisconsin’s unique nonpartisan elections board, do away with secret investigations into political wrongdoing and legalize coordination between issue advocacy groups and candidates will usher in a new era of corruption, Democrats said Monday.
Democratic lawmakers, who don’t have the votes to stop any of the measures moving quickly through the Legislature, joined together with other opponents from government watchdog groups at news conferences across the state.
“The Republicans have come up with what is the perfect trifecta to usher in new corruption, open the doors to a new era of big money in politics and corrupt dealings in our state Capitol,” said Democratic state Rep. Lisa Subek, of Madison.
On Tuesday, both the Senate and Assembly are scheduled to vote on a bill that would disallow secret John Doe investigations to be used for looking into allegations of political corruption or illegal activity.
On Wednesday, the Assembly plans to vote on bills rewriting Wisconsin’s campaign finance law and replacing the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board with separate partisan commissions to oversee elections and ethics.
Republican supporters of the measures say Democrats are being hyperbolic in their criticism, and that the campaign finance bill is in response to court rulings striking down portions of state law. Republicans have said for months they intended to reorganize the Government Accountability Board and limit application of the John Doe law, in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down an investigation into Gov. Scott Walker as unconstitutional.
The John Doe law, which allows investigators to gather evidence and talk with witnesses in secret before charges are filed, was used twice in probes related to Walker. The first investigated aides and associates of his when he was Milwaukee County executive, and the second looked into whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups.
Walker wasn’t charged in either investigation, both of which are now closed. In its July ruling stopping the second probe, the state Supreme Court ruled that coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups that don’t expressly call for election or defeat of a candidate is allowed under the law.
The bill rewriting Wisconsin campaign finance law would say in state law for the first time that such coordination is legal.
That would make Wisconsin the only state to allow such coordination, said Lisa Graves, executive director of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy.
“If these efforts are successful, they will usher in a new era of secrecy and political corruption in Wisconsin, beyond what has already begun to take hold,” Graves said.
The bill would also put into law a provision from a court ruling last year saying that there are no limits on how much money can be given to political parties and campaign committees. That money can then be turned over to candidates, which is a path to getting around the contribution limits those running for office must abide by.
Donation limits to candidates would also be doubled.
A third bill up for an Assembly vote Wednesday would replace the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which consists of six former judges, with a pair of partisan commissions. The new elections and ethics commissions would consist of three Democratic and three Republican appointees.
Republican supporters say the current GAB is nonpartisan in name only, and by having appointees with partisan affiliations is a more honest approach to regulating campaigns, elections and ethics laws.
But opponents say at its best the new makeup will lead to gridlock similar to the ineffective Federal Election Commission and at worst it will result in unchecked political corruption. The GAB was created in 2007 in the wake of a caucus scandal that resulted in five former legislators being convicted of campaigning illegally.