- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The state Senate passed a bill on party lines Tuesday that would ban county executives from serving concurrently in the Legislature.

The Republican bill comes as Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat, is running for an open Senate seat currently held by Republican Sen. Rick Gudex. The bill would mean if Harris wins the seat he would have to quit his $102,834 county job. As a senator, he would make $50,950 per year plus an $88 per diem for each day in Madison.

“I know people are going to say there’s a political piece to this, and there is,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who introduced the bill.

Fitzgerald said he has grown less and less comfortable with a person holding positions both as county executive and state lawmaker, due to conflicts of interest and collection of two salaries from taxpayers. Independent Bob Ziegelbauer served as a state representative and Manitowoc County executive from 2006 to 2013, and Republican Paul Farrow stayed on for about three months as a state senator after his election as Waukesha County Executive.

Fitzgerald said Harris’ announcement he would seek a state Senate seat brought the issue to the forefront again.

“There’s very clear divisions in the levels of government,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t be in the state Senate and run for Congress and hold both positions. There’s a reason for that.”

Democrats argued that many legislators hold two jobs, including elected posts such as county board member or mayor. They say the bill is clearly meant to force Harris out of the Senate race and help Republicans keep the seat in November.

“This smells to high heaven of partisanship,” said Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Kenosha. “In election year, we shouldn’t be doing this. Let the people decide.”

Democrats offered a series of amendments to expand the ban on concurrent offices to other elected posts, dual employment or other conflicts, all of which failed. Democrats argued Republicans would pass the amendments if the bill wasn’t just about Harris.

“People see this as petty and vindictive and wrong. That’s what they see this for,” said Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. “They see this as an attempt to hold on to the majority.”

Fitzgerald said county executives hold a more powerful position than county boards or other local government, holding veto power and acting as agents of the state.

“I know a lot of people since this came out that just flat-out say it’s wrong,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s just wrong for an individual to be holding those two positions.”

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said if something’s a conflict, legislators recuse themselves.

“There’s nothing unethical about someone having multiple jobs,” Taylor said.

The Senate passed an amendment from Fitzgerald Tuesday to allow someone to hold both positions for a transition period of 60 days after an individual is elected for either office.

The Senate approved the bill 19-13, sending it to the Assembly.

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Follow Bryna Godar on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bgodar

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