- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin’s unique nonpartisan elections and government ethics oversight board is a failed experiment that has not lived up to expectations, Republicans said Tuesday while arguing at a joint legislative hearing for moving to a new, partisan model.

The bill would do away with the Government Accountability Board as of June 30 - about four months before the November presidential election - replacing it with separate ethics and elections commissions run by an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees. The current board also oversees the state’s ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws.

GAB director Kevin Kennedy gave a spirited defense of the nearly 8-year-old board, saying the real goal is to exert more political control over an independent arm of the government, which he said would weaken regulation and lead to more corruption going undetected.

The all-day hearing grew tense at times, with Kennedy accusing one Republican senator of “McCarthy-era” questioning when asked about his relationship with former IRS director Lois Lerner, whom Kennedy has known for more than 20 years.

“Seriously?” he asked Sen. Chris Kapenga regarding Lerner, who had been involved in targeting conservative tea party groups for reviews of their tax-exempt status. “Have you no decency? … I owe you no explanation about my friendships.”

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Jocasta Zamarripa said the bill would create a “partisan lapdog” and a “toothless agency” similar to what was in place after five former legislators were convicted of campaigning illegally in a 2002 scandal.

“It’s a huge mistake you’re making,” she said.

But Republican sponsors ticked off a list of problems with the current oversight agency, and said the partisan makeup they envision would be a better and more honest approach.

“Despite repeated accusations that this bill is a partisan takeover or power grab, there is absolutely no evidence to back up that claim,” said bill sponsor Rep. Dean Knudson, a Republican from Hudson. “Rather than be a national model, Wisconsin’s failed experiment has become a national embarrassment.”

Republicans pushing for change argue the GAB is nonpartisan in name only, saying it exceeded its authority by being involved in the now-closed John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups during the recall elections in 2011 and 2012. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended that investigation in July, saying it was unconstitutional.

The proposal was not solely in response to the John Doe probe, but also in reaction to a series of inconsistent rulings, failure to do checks on whether felons were voting or close hundreds of investigations, said Knudson and bill co-sponsor Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Republican from Wauwatosa.

“The only thing the GAB has been consistent about is being inconsistent,” Vukmir said.

Representatives from the government watchdog group Common Cause of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, along with election clerks from around the state and Gerald Nichol, one of the judges who has been on the board since its beginning, all testified against the measure.

Bob Spindell, a GOP leader in Milwaukee who also is on that city’s election commission, was among those who spoke in support of the bill.

“The GAB has always been a very partisan group in almost all of its decisions,” he said.

The 2007 vote to create the Government Accountability Board was nearly unanimous with only two Democrats in the 132-member Legislature voting against it. Vukmir was among those who voted for it.

“It was naive to think you could have a nonpartisan board and sometimes we have to admit we made a mistake,” she said Tuesday.

Walker voiced support Tuesday for moving back to a partisan system, saying he was particularly pleased that local election clerks would fill two of the six board seats.

The proposal is moving quickly through the Republican-controlled Legislature and could be voted on as early as next week.


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

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