- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 15, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The state Government Accountability Board got ready Tuesday to implement a sweeping campaign finance overhaul and deal with its own elimination.

Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign bills as early as Wednesday that would dramatically rewrite Wisconsin’s campaign finance regulations and re-form the GAB into a pair of partisan commissions.

The campaign finance proposal clarifies that candidates can coordinate with outside groups that don’t disclose their donors on “issue ads,” communications that criticize a candidate’s policies and stances but don’t specifically call for his defeat. The bill also doubles how much money individuals can donate to statewide candidates to $20,000, eliminates a requirement that donors who give more than $100 identify their employers and for the first time allows corporate donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees.

The GAB, a board of nonpartisan retired judges, oversees Wisconsin elections and administers the state’s ethics laws. They met Tuesday to make technical changes to their internal rules to conform with the campaign finance changes.

They voted to require political and candidate committees to provide passwords to verify electronic signatures. The board had used committees’ bank accounts as verification, but the new bill doesn’t require committees to provide account numbers any longer. The judges also voted to alter GAB software so it no longer collects employer information.

The board ordered its staff to ask every political action committee currently registered with GAB if their main purpose is express advocacy, communications that clearly call for a candidate’s defeat or election, or whether half of their spending in a year will go toward candidate contributions, independent expenditures or a referendum campaign. Under the overhaul, committees don’t have to register if their major purpose isn’t express advocacy or if less than 50 percent of their spending will go toward contributions, independent expenditures or referendum campaigns.

The board scrapped a staff recommendation to require political parties and legislative committees to report corporate donations separately since such giving can’t be used for express advocacy or go to candidates. Several judges said such a move would go beyond the bill’s mandates.

Walker is expected to sign a bill at the same time as the campaign finance proposal that does away with the GAB on June 30. That measure would create two commissions of partisan appointees in its stead; one commission would oversee elections, the other ethics.

GAB Director Kevin Kennedy submitted a memo to the board Tuesday saying he has started working on a transition plan with the state Department of Administration. The plan will specify funding sources and spending authority for each commission and should be completed by June 1, the memo said.

Kennedy told reporters during a break that Walker and legislative leaders could begin appointing commissioners as soon as he signs the bill. The commissioners could join the GAB as non-voting members after Feb. 1 before taking over for good on June 30.

Republicans crafted the bills in the wake of a secret investigation into whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups. The GAB assisted prosecutors in the probe. The conservative-leaning state Supreme Court halted the investigation this summer, finding that coordination on issue ads is acceptable. The GOP decried the probe as a partisan witch-hunt.


This story has been updated to correct that the board recommendation calls for committees to provide passwords to verify electronic signatures, not their bank accounts.

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