Forward? Wisconsin Legislature Eliminates GAB

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This week the Wisconsin Legislature this week passed and sent to the Governor a pair of bills that eliminate the state election agency, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB), and replace it with a pair of bipartisan commissions tasked with managing campaign finance and election administration. Like just about everything else that’s gone on in Wisconsin over the last several years, the bills were both cause and result of fierce partisan debate, with Democrats saying the changes were unnecessary and open the door to corruption and gridlock and Republicans arguing that the GAB had failed to do its job in the wake of high-profile and controversial enforcement efforts on the campaign finance side.

Here are the relevant excerpts from the legislature’s summary of AB388:

Currently, the GAB is under the direction and supervision of a board of six members. All six members are former judges appointed by the governor from nominations submitted by a committee comprised of one court of appeals judge from each court of appeals district. Currently, board members are appointed with the advice and consent of two−thirds of the members of the senate and serve six−year terms. One term expires each May 1.

This bill eliminates the GAB and replaces it with an Elections Commission, which administers and supervises elections, and an Ethics Commission, which administers and supervises ethics, campaign financing, and lobbying regulation.

Under the bill, the Elections Commission consists of at least six persons, who serve five−year terms:

1) One individual appointed by the majority leader in the senate;
2) One individual appointed by the minority leader in the senate;
3) One individual appointed by the speaker of the assembly.
4) One individual appointed by the minority leader of the assembly; and
5) Two former municipal or county clerks, selected by the leadership in both houses and nominated by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate confirmed.

In addition, the bill requires the appointment to the Elections Commission of one member for each political party, other than the two major political parties, qualifying for a separate ballot whose candidate for governor received at least 10 percent of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial election. The individual must be nominated by the governor from a list of three individuals selected by the chief officer of that political party …

Under the bill, the Elections Commission is supervised by an administrator who is appointed by at least a majority of the members of the commission. The administrator is appointed with the advice and consent of the senate to serve for a four−year term expiring on July 1 of the odd−numbered year. The bill also provides that the administrator of the Elections Commission, rather than an employee that the commission designates, is the chief election officer of this state …

Under the bill, all full−time equivalent positions currently authorized for GAB are transferred to the Elections and Ethics commissions. All incumbents in those positions except the director and general counsel of GAB are also transferred. [emphasis added]

That last provision would seem to indicate that longtime GAB director Kevin Kennedy, who has served the state for over 35 years (and is highly regarded nationally), is out of a job – though given all the other changes, it was not a position he may have been willing to keep. If he is indeed moving on, it will be a huge loss for the state’s election system.

Regardless of your opinion of the merits of this change, it’s pretty clear that the timing of the switch is deeply problematic. The effective date of the act is June 30, 2016 – but it’s not clear how quickly the various changes will take effect. In the meantime, the state has less than twelve months to prepare for a presidential election – and implement the state’s controversial photo ID law in a state that could well be a battleground for the two major parties next November.

Time will tell if the Wisconsin Republicans’ loss of faith in the GAB was well-founded – but good or bad the impact of the change will likely be felt right away and sharply as 2016 approaches.

Stay tuned.

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