- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday he has the votes to pass a compromise bill that would put two retired judges on a new ethics commission, a move that also won support from the measure’s sponsor and other reluctant lawmakers.

GOP senators struck the deal Tuesday during a closed-door meeting called to break an impasse that was holding up the bill after it passed the Assembly last month. The Senate planned to pass it Friday, and the Assembly was scheduled to vote Nov. 16 to send the final version on to Gov. Scott Walker.

“I wouldn’t go to the floor if I didn’t have the votes,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. Details were still being worked out and would be released later, he said.

The bill doing away with the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board originally called for creating separate ethics and elections commissions with an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees. The current board overseeing elections, ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws is comprised of six retired judges, a feature that makes it unique nationwide.

Tuesday’s deal would put two retired judges on the new commission dealing with ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws. No retired judges would be on the new elections commission.

“This compromise still accomplishes what we set out to do from the start by creating a bipartisan watchdog,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Republican Sen. Leah Vukmir, of Wauwatosa. “As an elected official, you don’t always get what you want, but we are getting what we need - reform to a broken agency.”

Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, one of those who had been pushing for including judges, said he also supported the compromise.

The Government Accountability Board was created in 2008 to replace the previous ethics and elections boards, which contained partisan appointees and were widely viewed to be ineffective. The push this year to do away with the GAB comes after its involvement in an investigation into Walker and conservative groups that the Wisconsin Supreme Court halted in July, saying nothing was illegal about the coordination going on between them.

Republican critics said the board was out of control and nonpartisan in name only, while its supporters say it was simply enforcing the law and its nonpartisan makeup is a model for the country.

The Assembly passed a bill last month that created two new ethics and elections commissions with an equal number of Democratic and Republican appointees. The Senate version being discussed would require that two of the ethics commission members be retired judges. There would be no change to the elections board makeup.

Adding the two judges to the commission, and figuring out the process for who would name them, was the main topic of discussion among Republican senators who met privately Tuesday, said Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for Republican Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater.

Nass generally supports the compromise, but won’t commit until he actually sees the changes in writing, Mikalsen said.

“The devil’s going to be in the details when we see the amendment in writing,” Mikalsen said.

Opponents to eliminating the nonpartisan GAB say moving to commissions with partisan appointees will result in laws not being strenuously enforced and gridlock when there are votes.

The bill as passed by the Assembly would also take away the unlimited budget, currently afforded the GAB, to launch investigations. Instead, any investigation costing more than $25,000 would require approval by the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.

The Senate was also scheduled to vote Friday on another bill rewriting the state’s campaign finance laws. The bill as it passed the Assembly would double contribution limits that candidates can accept, make clear in state law that candidates and issue advocacy groups can work closely together, and allow for unlimited corporate and union donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees.

Olsen said there would be some changes to that portion of the bill relating to maximum contribution limits for candidates.

Democrats have decried these two bills - along with one already signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker doing away with secret John Doe investigations into political misconduct - as opening the door to more corruption.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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This story has been corrected to show that Vukmir is from Wauwatosa, not Brookfield.

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