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Election board member: Speed of rewrite bill ‘mind-boggling’

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A member of Wisconsin’s embattled nonpartisan elections board said Tuesday it is “mind-boggling” that Republicans who control the Legislature are moving so quickly to pass a rewrite of the state’s complex campaign finance laws.

That bill, along with another measure that would dissolve the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board that oversees elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws, are slated for approval Wednesday in the Assembly.

The board discussed both proposals at its meeting Tuesday.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that we were rushed to get a new complicated law in place without careful deliberation about whether this law is going to present difficult enforcement problems,” board member John Franke said of the campaign finance measure.

The bill is a response to a series of court rulings striking down major portions of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law, including a July state Supreme Court decision that ended the investigation into Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups.

In accordance with that ruling, the bill would change state law to say that candidates can coordinate with issue advocacy groups that don’t directly call for the election or defeat of a particular candidate. It would also allow unlimited donations to political parties and legislative committees, while doubling how much can be given to individual candidates.

Doubling the individual limits from $10,000 to $20,000 is a good idea, said Jonathan Becker, director of the board’s division that handles those issues. Those moves will increase the powers of the political parties, he said, recognizing the changed campaign finance landscape caused by recent court rulings.

“It’s not a bad bill,” Becker said.

Democrats and other opponents have said the measure will open the door to more unregulated money coming into elections, particularly through issue advocacy groups that don’t have to disclose their donors and who can coordinate their message and work with candidates.

Democrats don’t have enough votes to stop the campaign finance bill or the measure dissolving the GAB. That proposal would replace the board comprised of nonpartisan judges with a pair of commissions to oversee ethics and elections with partisan appointees.

“Power never likes to be checked, and that’s what we’re seeing now,” said Dane County clerk Scott McDonell, who spoke in support of the board at its meeting.

Republican backers of moving back to partisan boards say it will create a more transparent process, while Democratic opponents say it will only lead to gridlock and the opportunity for more political corruption.

Diane Hermann-Brown, city clerk in Sun Prairie, also praised the board’s work over the past eight years and raised concerns about transitioning to a new commission next year, just four months before the presidential election.

“The timing of this happening next year in June will be very difficult,” she said.

The current board was created by a nearly unanimous vote by the Legislature in 2007, in response to the so-called caucus scandal from the early 2000s that resulted in Republican and Democratic leaders being charged with felonies for campaigning on state time.

The campaign finance bill was introduced on Oct. 8, and the proposal dissolving the board came on Oct. 9. A hearing on both was held four days afterward and the committee passed them two days later. The Assembly’s vote on passage Wednesday comes less than two weeks after the bills’ introductions.

Both proposals also must pass the Senate and be signed by Walker before taking effect. Walker has been vocally supportive of reorganizing the board, saying that having a board with bipartisan representation including election clerks is “real reform.”

It’s unclear when the bills may be taken up in the Senate.

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