- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed measures Wednesday eliminating Wisconsin’s nonpartisan state elections board and overhauling the state’s campaign finance regulations, brushing aside opponents’ concerns that the changes will create corruption and hide campaign donors from public view.

Walker signed both bills into law privately Wednesday. The first word that he had put pen to paper came not from his office but from a tweet from a Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, the elections board bill’s author. Walker’s office issued a statement about three hours later confirming he had signed both measures.

“This is exactly what’s wrong with Republicans in state government,” Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said in a news release. “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.”

The first bill does away with the Government Accountability Board, an agency run by retired nonpartisan judges that oversees 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.

The state had relied on a nearly identical two-panel system of partisan appointees to run elections and administer ethics laws until 2007, when the Legislature overwhelmingly voted to create the GAB. The board has run afoul of Republican legislators in recent years, though.

The board joined a now-closed John Doe investigation into whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups on issue ads, communications that criticize or praise a candidate’s policies but don’t specifically call for his or her election or defeat. Republicans complained loudly that the probe was nothing more than a partisan witch hunt. The conservative-leaning state Supreme Court halted the investigation this summer, ruling such coordination 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 where information is tightly controlled and prosecutors can force witnesses to testify.

Republicans also have cried foul over what they see as a series of inconsistent board rulings and the board’s failure to check whether felons are voting or close hundreds of investigations.

John Doe court documents mentioned that Walker’s campaign discussed coordinating with Americans for Prosperity. Eric Bott, the conservative group’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 defended the board, saying Republicans’ real goal is exerting political control over an independent government agency. Kennedy issued a statement Wednesday saying the board is 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.”

The campaign finance bill, meanwhile, dramatically restructures political fundraising rules.

The measure doubles the limit for individual campaign contributions to statewide candidates to $20,000; eliminates a requirement that donors giving more than $100 identify their employer; and for the first time permits corporate donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees. It also clarifies candidates can coordinate with outside groups on issue ads, reflecting the Supreme Court’s ruling in the John Doe probe.

Republicans have said they’re trying to protect free speech and react to court rulings. Democrats and government watchdog groups insisted the changes will increase special interests’ influence on elections and make it more difficult for the public to learn who is funding campaigns.

“The enactment into law of both the GAB destruction and campaign finance deform measures - together with the recently enacted law to exempt political crimes from being investigated under the state’s John Doe process - will all combine to allow political corruption to take root and flourish in Wisconsin,” government watchdog group Common Cause of Wisconsin said in a news release.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1 .

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