- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The nonpartisan makeup of the state board that oversees elections, ethics and campaign finance laws in Wisconsin is its greatest strength, its director said at a meeting Tuesday amid calls from Republicans who control the Legislature that an overhaul is needed.

Government Accountability Board director Kevin Kennedy defended the nonpartisan structure of the panel, as well as having it oversee elections, lobbying, ethics and campaign finance laws. Republicans are talking about breaking up the board, replacing the judges who are on it with partisan appointees, and other changes.

Debate over what to do with the 7-year-old board is in the spotlight following an audit released Friday that detailed a number of problems with its operation, but did not recommend dismantling it or moving toward a partisan structure.

Gov. Scott Walker, when asked about the issue at the governor’s mansion Tuesday, said he was open to ideas about how to improve the board, but didn’t know whether the right approach was modifying the current structure, going back to the previous model with partisan appointees on two separate boards, or coming up with something new.

“There’s plusses and minuses with each of those,” he said.

The audit did find that board staff didn’t fulfill duties required by law in a timely manner, did not follow its penalty schedule for enforcing campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws, failed to properly audit electronic voting equipment and hasn’t effectively communicated all of its rules.

The board has 154 separate responsibilities under the law, most of which the audit found it was adequately fulfilling.

“I was very concerned by the audit report,” said board member Elsa Lamelas. At her suggestion, the board voted to have staff provide an update by March on how recommendations for improvement in the audit are being met. The audit called for the board to report back to the Legislature by April 15 on its progress, a deadline Kennedy said it would meet.

The GAB was created by the Legislature in 2008 to replace the separate elections and ethics boards, which were comprised of partisan appointees and widely criticized as being ineffective. The board is comprised of six former judges, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

The board has drawn criticism of its handling of recall elections in 2011 and 2012 that targeted both Republicans and Democrats, a secret John Doe investigation into alleged illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and conservative groups and ballot designs.

Board chairman Tom Barland asked whether Kennedy believed elections duties should be separated from its requirement to enforce the state’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws. Some Republican lawmakers have suggested making that change.

No specific proposal for changes to the board has been made public, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald are among those calling for changes. Vos has said Kennedy needs to be replaced.

But Kennedy, who previously served as head of the elections board that preceded the GAB, defended the board’s makeup and scope of duties. He said one of its biggest benefits is that it serves as a one-stop-shop for questions about elections, ethics and campaign finance laws that often overlap.

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

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