Bill Would Kill Nonpartisan Accountability Board
Proposal to replace GAB will effectively end its scrutiny of misconduct by legislators and state officials.
The long, expected hyper-partisan measure to eviscerate the non-partisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) will be unleashed today in the State Capitol. It was concocted completely in secret, with no input from anyone other than other hyper-partisans and, if enacted into law, would fundamentally transform what was a nationally-admired model of effectiveness, efficiency and impartiality into a toothless backwater state agency completely under the control of partisan politicians.
This mockery of good public policy is being inflicted on Wisconsin for one reason – to destroy and then assert control over an agency that did what it was designed to do: oversee Wisconsin’s election, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws impartially and with a degree of independence from micromanagement by partisan legislative leaders and their lackeys.
We haven’t been invited to view the legislation yet, but reportedly:
It “divides and conquers” the GAB by splitting it apart into two divisions: Elections and Ethics.
It eliminates the central feature of what made the GAB so impartial, effective and respected: the very board itself, comprised of six retired state judges chosen specifically for their impartiality and nonpartisan adherence to the rule of law. It replaces the judges with six partisan appointments – three Republicans and three Democrats for each division. Four of these appointments will be from the four partisan legislative leaders.
This is modeled after the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), arguably the most ineffective agency in the federal government. This is by design. 3 to 3 decisions by the FEC result in no action, compliance, or enforcement.
This measure also eliminates the most critical element of the GAB – the one that was the essential bedrock of the legislation in 2007 – its sum-sufficient stream of funding for GAB investigations for things like political corruption committed by legislators or governors. This measure would now make such funding subject to the approval of legislators. That would include legislators who might need to be investigated! Obviously, without this independence, the GAB becomes a partisan-controlled pawn. It won’t be worth the office space it will occupy.
The GAB was the brainchild of a Republican State Senator, Michael G. Ellis of Neenah, the former State Senate Majority Leader, who worked closely with Common Cause in Wisconsin (CC/WI) and a number of other legislators of both political parties in the aftermath of the most serious political scandal in Wisconsin in the last hundred years – the Legislative Caucus Scandal. That scandal disgraced both major political parties and toppled from power the Republican Assembly Speaker (Scott Jensen), Majority Leader (Steve Foti), and Assistant Majority Leader (Bonnie Ladwig), as well as the Democratic State Senate Majority Leader (Chuck Chvala) and Senate Co-Chair of the Joint Finance Committee (Brian Burke), who was also a leading candidate for Wisconsin Attorney General in 2002.
The solution had to be a bipartisan one, given the nature of the Caucus Scandal and the fact that the Wisconsin Legislature in 2007 was under split control. Both sides agreed that the old State Elections Board and State Ethics Board had to go because they utterly failed to uncover and investigate the burgeoning corruption that was occurring under the Capitol dome during the late 1990’s.
In a special session in January, 2007, the Republican-controlled Assembly created the GAB on a 97 to 2 vote and the Democratic-controlled State Senate did the same, unanimously, 33 to 0. Democratic Governor Jim Doyle signed the GAB measure into law. Every Republican legislator voted for it. It was considered and passed only after months of painstaking negotiation and compromise by legislative leaders of both parties, including then Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, Republican Assistant Majority Leader Mark Gundrum, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, Republican Senator Mike Ellis, CC/WI and others. Neither side got all that it wanted. But in a moment of clarity and bipartisan cooperation, Republicans and Democrats created something very good for all of the citizens of Wisconsin – a strong, effective, impartial state agency with integrity.
There are currently 24 Republican legislators (12 State Senators and 12 State Representatives) who were in office in 2007 and who voted to create the non-partisan GAB. They will have to flip-flop and change their vote to support this hyper-partisan reincarnation of an impotent, toothless agency that the citizens of Wisconsin will have every reason to be ashamed of. Legislators are usually reluctant to reverse their position on any issue. But these 24 will have to do so to vote for this legislation. And they must be held accountable if they do. They will say “things changed” and that the GAB is “too partisan,” and is a “rogue agency.” None of these charges are the least bit true and all have been addressed and refuted.
If this concerns you, it is absolutely essential that you contact both your State Senator and your State Representative and demand they oppose this legislation and support the preservation of the nonpartisan GAB, “as is.” If you are not sure who your legislators are, go here.
We have a chance to defeat this abomination, particularly in the State Senate, where we are within three votes of stopping it. But only if we act.
Jay Heck is the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.