Columnist examines changes to ethics, election board
By Matt Pommer
As Thanksgiving approaches, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, wants to carve up the agency that oversees ethics and elections in Wisconsin. Critics seem to view it like getting years-old turkey out of basement freezer.
Vos’ plan, backed by Gov. Scott Walker, would replace the six retired appeals court judges now sitting on the Government Accountability Board (GAB) with two bipartisan commissions dominated by politicians. Unlimited funding for investigations would be eliminated, and the governor would get to appoint the top staffer on each commission.
The speaker is angry about the GAB’s role in the John Doe investigation into the coordination between Walker and conservative groups during the 2012 recall election. Vos called it an “unconstitutional investigation.”
“As they went through the process, they did some things I think were patently wrong,” Vos contends.
The Legislature created the GAB in 2007 to replace the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board in the aftermath of the 2001-2002 caucus scandal that involved legislative leaders of both parties. Former State Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, is generally given credit for the GAB idea.
The GAB officially began work in January 2008.
Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, called the proposed changes “petty vengeance on the part of Republican leaders,” adding it is a fevered effort to shield themselves from embarrassment and prosecution in the future.
Vos calls the GAB “a failed experiment.” He touts his plan as following the general model of the Federal Elections Commission and of other states. Alas, the Federal Elections Commission is usually deadlocked. Rothschild notes it has a tough time even deciding what food to provide for its meetings, let alone make policy decisions.
State Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, who has helped draft the new legislation, downplayed the idea the new commissions would be hopelessly deadlocked. He said commission members would be “well qualified people able to compromise.”
Retired Appeals Court Judge Gordon Myse of Appleton served on the old State Elections Board and was on the GAB for three years. Yes, the Elections Board members were “exceptional people,” he has written, “but the board was unable to act positively on any matter of substance. This deadlock was caused by a partisan view of all proposals. There is no reason to believe returning to this flawed concept will work any better this time around.”
Walker has appointed five of the six retired judges now serving on the GAB. Board chair Gerald Nichol, a former Republican district attorney before becoming a judge, has offered an alternative to dismantling the GAB. He has suggested allowing each major party to have a non-voting member on the board.
It can be argued Republicans don’t need Vos’ proposed changes. Gerrymandering has created legislative district lines that virtually guarantee they will control the legislature through 2022. Conservatives control the State Supreme Court. Earlier this year the high court halted the John Doe investigation. The conservative justices are expected to give Walker control over development of education rules for the state.
But changes are coming for next fall’s general election. Registration hours have been limited and a photo ID requirement takes effect. Both will make it harder for the poor and elderly to vote. The last Republican presidential candidate to carry Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan. Vos would have the new commissions in charge by mid-2016.
Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin said Vos’ plan “would fundamentally transfer what was a nationally admired model of effectiveness, efficiency and impartially into a partisan, toothless backwater state agency completely under the control of partisan politicians.
“It won’t be worth the office space it will occupy,” added Heck.