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Walker signs law eliminating elections board; new panel will have 2 judges (UPDATE)

Associated Press 

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill Wednesday that eliminates Wisconsin’s nonpartisan state elections board and replaces it with a pair of commissions made up of political appointees, despite opponents’ concerns about the potential for corruption and a lack of transparency.

The law does away with the Government Accountability Board, an agency run by retired judges to oversee elections and ethics laws, on June 30. The board will be replaced with two commissions: one to oversee elections, the other ethics. Both commissions will be made up of partisan appointees, although the ethics panel will have two retired judges.

Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, the legislation’s chief sponsor, said in a tweet that Walker had signed the bill. Knudson’s aide, John Webb, said Knudson was in Walker’s office as the governor signed the bill privately. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email that the office would release a statement shortly.

Walker on Wednesday also signed another closely watched bill to loosen some campaign finance restrictions. Minority Democrats and government watchdog groups have lamented both bills, saying they would open the door to corruption and make it more difficult for the public to see who is funding politicians.

“This is exactly what’s wrong with Republicans in state government: instead of transparency and accountability, the public only gets a tweet from the bill author that his bill dismantling the Government Accountability Board is signed into law. Talk about government accountability,” Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.

The GAB had come in for special scorn from conservatives for participating in a so-called John Doe investigation into whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups on issue ads, communications that criticize a candidate’s position but don’t expressly call for his or her defeat or election. They argued the GAB was nonpartisan only in name and cited critical audits of the board as justification for ending it. The state Supreme Court halted the probe in July, saying coordination on issue ads amounts to free speech.

Walker signed a separate bill last month that barred prosecutors from using the John Doe process to investigate political misconduct. Such investigations are similar to a grand jury investigation, in that information is tightly controlled and prosecutors can subpoena witnesses to testify as they weigh whether to pursue criminal charges.

John Doe court documents mentioned that Walker’s campaign discussed coordinating with the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. Eric Bott, AFP’s state director, released a statement Wednesday praising Walker for eliminating the GAB.

“Unable or unwilling to accomplish its core mission, the GAB instead worked in secret to launch partisan assaults on protected free speech and its own political enemies,” Bott said.

GAB Director Kevin Kennedy has said Republicans’ real goal is exerting political control over an independent government agency. Kennedy issued a statement Wednesday saying the board and its staff are ready to work with Walker’s Department of Administration and the new commissioners to ensure a smooth transition heading into the 2016 elections.

“We are professionals who care deeply about serving voters, local election officials, candidates and officeholders, and the lobbying community,” Kennedy said. “Our commitment is to ensure continuity of service during the transition.”

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