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Senator says elections board bill doesn’t have votes to pass

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly was poised Wednesday to vote to dissolve the state’s nonpartisan elections board, however a Republican state senator said the bill in its current form doesn’t have enough support to pass in his chamber.

The proposal has been rocketing through the Legislature, with the Assembly expected to pass it less than two weeks after it was introduced. The Assembly was also expected to pass another fast-tracked measure that would overhaul the state’s campaign finance laws by allowing unlimited donations to political parties and doubling the limits for individual candidates.

The Assembly, where Republicans hold a 63-36 majority, was expected to easily pass the bills — both of which Democrats and watchdog groups oppose. But in the Senate, where the GOP has a more narrow 19-14 edge, there are three or four Republicans who will not support the bill replacing the nonpartisan elections board with a partisan one, Republican Sen. Luther Olsen said.

Republicans can only lose two votes and still have enough to pass either measure given expected unified Democratic opposition. The bills must pass both the Senate and Assembly in identical form and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before they could become law.

On the elections board proposal, Olsen said the major problem for him and other Republican senators with reservations is whether to replace the six nonpartisan former judges who currently sit on the Government Accountability Board with appointees made by Democrats and Republicans.

The bill continues to be the subject of negotiations among Republicans, said Myranda Tanck, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Sen. Leah Vukmir, who introduced the GAB bill, declined an interview request but issued a statement saying she was confident the bill would pass. She did not say what changes she would support, if any.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he was willing to consider changes, but he wouldn’t say what he would accept.

“I’m not going to negotiate in the press when no one has said what it would take to get the votes,” Vos said at a news conference.

The proposal would do away with the board and create a pair of new commissions — one to oversee elections and the other to handle ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws. Each commission would be made up of an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees.

Walker, who supports the measure, argues that it is a bipartisan approach that makes sense, particularly given that former local election clerks will be among those on the commission dealing with elections. The current Government Accountability Board has been sharply criticized by Walker and other Republicans over its role approving an investigation into whether Walker and Republican groups illegally coordinated during the 2012 recall elections.

Republicans also say the agency has been mismanaged and not fulfilled its duties under the law, pointing to critical state audits. But backers of the board say the issues identified were being addressed and not substantial enough to warrant doing away with the board and moving back to a partisan model like the widely criticized agencies that preceded the GAB.

Both the GAB bill and the campaign finance measure were scheduled for a Senate committee vote on Thursday, a step that must happen before the full Senate can take them up.

The bill overhauling the state’s campaign finance law will likely undergo changes before it passes the Senate, based on what form it passes the Assembly, Tanck said.

The Assembly’s consideration of both bills comes the day after the Senate and Assembly passed a third measure doing away with secret John Doe investigations into political misconduct and allowing those who have been targeted in the past to speak about it. Current law prohibits subjects of John Doe probes from discussing them publicly.

Republican backers say they are protecting free speech rights and bringing a stop to meandering investigations designed to smear prosecutors’ political enemies. But Democrats say it will take away a powerful tool used by prosecutors to root out crime, and Republicans are merely exacting retribution because they were unhappy with the investigation into Walker and conservatives.

The state Supreme Court in July ended that investigation, saying Walker and the issue advocacy groups could work closely with one another.

Democrats decried both bills, but didn’t have the votes to stop either.

“I’m astonished, I’m shocked, I’m appalled,” Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said before debate began. “I believe this will lead to significant corruption in Wisconsin.”

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