- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Senate Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Tuesday saying they’ll convene later this week to vote on bills that would wipe out Wisconsin’s unique nonpartisan elections board and overhaul the state’s campaign finance law.

The Assembly passed both measures last month, but the bills got bogged down in the Senate, where some more moderate Republican lawmakers sought revisions to both proposals.

In a change from what the Assembly passed, the Senate would keep two judges on a newly created ethics commission instead of removing them entirely, according to state Rep. Dean Knudson, who was briefed on the new plan.

The elections board bill as passed by the Assembly would replace the Government Accountability Board, which is headed by six former judges, with two commissions made up of an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees. One commission would handle elections; the other campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws.

Some Republican senators have been reluctant to remove judges entirely. Under the Senate version, no judges would be on the elections board but there would be two on the commission handling ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws, said Knudson, a Republican from Hudson who sponsored the original bill in the Assembly.

The Senate version would also create a process for resolving any deadlock in the commission’s selection of an administrator, Knudson said.

Knudson said he was only told of the changes at a “conceptual level.”

“I see no reason why any of that would be unacceptable,” he said.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday he was “more than willing to be reasonable” when considering Senate changes, and he didn’t have a problem with keeping retired judges on the commission.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokeswoman, Myranda Tanck, declined to give details about the changes the Senate would be voting on Friday. She said the changes would be out by Thursday. Republican senators who had said they wanted changes to the bills did not return messages Tuesday.

Fitzgerald twice scrapped floor sessions - once last week and again on Tuesday - to instead hold meetings with his members as he tried to broker an agreement. The Republican senators met privately all Tuesday afternoon before Tanck said the Senate would vote on the bills Friday.

Republican senators also are looking for unspecified changes to the campaign finance bill. That measure as passed by the Assembly would legalize coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups that don’t disclose their donors, bringing state law into compliance with a state Supreme Court ruling this summer. The justices found such coordination is permissible, ending an investigation into coordination between Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign and outside conservative groups.

The proposal also would double how much money individuals could give candidates, eliminate the requirement that donors disclose their employers and allow unlimited corporate and union contributions to political parties and legislative campaign committees.

The bill’s supporters maintain the changes protect free-speech rights and amount to a much-needed overhaul of Wisconsin’s 40-year-old election law. Opponents fear the changes will give special interest groups more influence and obscure who is paying for elections.

The five-week fall legislative session ends Thursday. The Senate delays mean legislative leaders must convene in extraordinary session, a floor period outside of the regular schedule that’s devoted to a specific purpose. Legislative leaders can call such sessions without the governor’s approval.

Both houses must pass identical versions of the bills before they can go to Walker for his signature. Vos said the Assembly likely will convene on Nov. 11 or Nov. 12 to consider any changes the Senate makes to the proposals.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called the prospect of an extraordinary session “outrageous.” If Republicans want to call an extraordinary session, he said, they should use it to focus on jobs, education and funding highway projects.

“Those are the issues people care about,” he said.

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