It was a packed house at the State Capitol on Tuesday, as lawmakers heard testimony on a bill that would dissolve the nonpartisan board that oversees elections in Wisconsin.
Under the Republican plan, the Government Accountability Board would be replaced with a pair of commissions headed by partisan appointees.
Emotions ran high as the hearing stretched into the late afternoon.
One of the first speakers was the author of the bill that would overhaul the board, Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir. She told a joint committee that the current panel of retired judges has been lax in supervising the board’s staff.
Vukmir spoke in particular of staff members who admitted they assisted in the probe into whether Gov. Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups.
“Investigations with an unlimited budget that turned into partisan witch hunts, serious lapses in monitoring of our elections as well. The GAB failed to meet many of its statutory mandated tasks and the retired judges appointed to supervise the GAB’s activities were inattentive at best,” Vukmir says.
Vukmir says her bill would scrap the current board and form two panels; an Elections Board and an Ethics Board. Republicans and Democrats would appoint members of the boards. One person supporting the measure is GOP state Rep. Dean Knudson. He insists the boards would be better balanced.
“Each party has an equal number of nominees on each of the commissions. Despite repeated accusations that this bill is a partisan takeover or power grab, there is absolutely no evidence to back up that claim,” Knudson says.
But, some Democrats objected to the plan, including state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa of Milwaukee. She reminded the audience that the GAB was created in 2008, in the aftermath of the caucus scandal at the state capitol. It led to convictions of several state lawmakers from both parties, for massive campaigning on state time.
Zamarripa says she fears the bill could spark a return to what she called the dark days of state government.
“The impetus for the GAB was that caucus scandal and you want to go back to that. You want to go back to a toothless agency. You want to move away from this nationally lauded government watchdog that is the Government Accountability Board and I find that very worrisome,” Zamarripa says.
Another person who spoke against the bill was the Executive Director of the GAB, Kevin Kennedy. He called the legislation, bad policy for the citizens of Wisconsin.
“This legislation is about one thing, exerting political control over the independent executive branch agency charged with administering and enforcing campaign finance, election, ethics and lobbying laws. The reasons given for doing away with the GAB are based on inaccurate, incomplete and in many cases completely false assertions by the proponents of this legislation,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy also questioned the timing of the legislation as the state prepares to implement the Voter ID law in major elections in 2016.
The Joint Committee on Campaigns and Elections didn’t take action Tuesday. A vote is expected at a later date.