December 18, 2014

Audit details problems at Wisconsin Government Accountability Board

(File photo: WRN)

(File photo: WRN)

A new state audit shows a number of problems at the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the agency that oversees the state’s election, campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws. The report by the state Legislative Audit Bureau could provide more fuel for efforts to overhaul the agency, which Republicans have indicated they hope to do next year.

The audit found that GAB staff did fulfill many of its required duties, including the training of municipal clerks and working to improve polling place accessibility. However, it also shows staff failed to complete other duties “in a timely manner,” which included mandated post-election reviews to determine if felons voted in an election and audits of electronic voting equipment. According to the report, “from February 2010 through April 2014, GAB’s staff did not conduct 16 statutorily required post-election reviews to identify individuals with ongoing felony sentences who may have voted.”

The audit also showed the GAB falling behind on promulgating, amending or removing several administrative rules. It also found staff failed to regularly provide the retired judges who oversee the board with complete information on their enforcement efforts and that the agency lacked a written procedures for considering complaints.

In a statement, GAB director Kevin Kennedy defended the agency, noting that the audit found “problems with the GAB’s financial accounting or spending, and called for no significant changes regarding the core duties and performance of the Board or its staff.” Kennedy also pledged that they are “committed to implementing LAB’s recommendations to bring the agency into full compliance with statutory requirements and further improve its operations.”

Republican lawmakers pounced on the audit shortly after its release, with state Senator Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), co-chair of the Legislature’s Audit Committee, saying he is “troubled by the numerous findings,” and noting that “the GAB has simply not performed required duties that they are obligated to do, by law. There needs to be answers for the blatant disregard of state statutes.”

State Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem), the other co-chair of the panel, said she was “angry and disappointed with the findings of this audit, adding that the “agency has inspired outrage with its inconsistent penalty assessments and failure to comply with state statute.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the audit was not surprising. “We know that the GAB routinely doesn’t follow the law and there’s no accountability whatsoever. The audit is another illustration of why we must change the GAB,” Vos said in a statement. He added that efforts are already underway to draft legislation to reform the agency.

The Government Accountability Board was created by the Legislature in 2007 to serve as a non-partisan agency to oversee elections in the state, replacing the former State Elections Board. The board is made up of six retired judges, who are appointed to six-year terms by the governor. The agency has been a frequent target of criticism from lawmakers.

GAB chair signs Wisconsin election results

(File photo: WRN)

(File photo: WRN)

Wisconsin’s fall election results are now final. Judge Thomas Barland of Eau Claire is chair of the Government Accountability Board. Barland signed the canvass statements Monday at the Eau Claire County Courthouse. The statements confirm the final vote count for the November 4th elections, including the one for Wisconsin governor.

The certified election results show Republican Governor Scott Walker received 1,259,706 votes, or 52.26 percent of the total, compared with 1,122,913 votes, or 46.59 percent for Democrat Mary Burke. Just under 55 percent of Wisconsin adults voted in last month’s elections – the highest turnout for a scheduled November governor’s contest since at least 1950.

The top independent vote-getter was Robert Burke with over 18,000. There were six write-in candidates with vote counts from 5 to 108. Since November 4th, election officials had to verify provisional ballots, certify results in each county, and wait for any recount totals.

Wisconsin’s GAB focus of GOP scrutiny

Rep. Robin Vos (Photo: WRN)

Rep. Robin Vos (Photo: WRN)

What’s in store for the state Government Accountability Board? The state elections and ethics agency is in the crosshairs of Republican leaders in the legislature. Jay Heck heads Common Cause in Wisconsin.

“Every Republican in 2007 that was in the legislature voted for it, including Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald,” said Heck. “But the problem is, the GAB doesn’t do what they want.” And what they want, Heck believes, is for things to go their way.

The GAB is composed of six retired judges, who make decisions on a non-partisan basis. “That’s what it’s supposed to do,” Heck said. “It’s not supposed to please the partisans. It’s supposed to be independent and nonpartisan.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has pledged to make changes at the GAB. “They’re attacking a state agency that is entrusted with being nonpartisan and being independent,” Heck said. “If they suddenly make it partisan and dependent on the Republican leadership, then no citizen in the state is going to have confidence in the GAB. And I think that would be a real problem for Republicans in the ling run.

Governor Scott Walker has indicated that changes to the GAB are not among his priorities for a second term. “Governor Walker could play a big role in this. It would be helpful if he would come out and stand for keeping the GAB intact,” Heck said.

Wisconsin Assembly GOP touts conservatism, reaches out to Dems

Jim Steineke

Jim Steineke

Several members of the Assembly last week touted the level of their conservatism.

Jim Steineke of Kaukauna has been elected as the new majority leader of the 63 members of his chamber — the largest majority since 1957. He says their conservative views on the role of government will help “keep the size and scope of government in check while being fiscally responsible.”

“It should be as limited as possible, providing the services that people need, giving people a hand up when they need it, but not making that a generational dependence on government.”

In lieu of raising taxes to cover state programs, Steineke — the second most powerful man in the state Assembly after Speaker Robin Vos — says they expect to generate revenue through economic growth.

“What we want to do is make sure that every single taxpayer dollar that’s being spent is being spent wisely, because people work hard for their money. We want to make sure if they’re sending it down to Madison that we are not wasting it.” So, he says, “We wanna reduce the tax burden to a level that’s commensurate with that way of thinking.”

Steineke realizes there are basic services government needs to provide — schools, roads, infrastructure. So, there’s a limit to how much they can reduce government spending. The Assembly majority leader-elect says in the coming weeks, he’ll be having conversations with the other side of the political aisle, promoting an open-door policy to hear about their legislative ideas.

First elected to the Assembly in 2010, Steineke says there is definitely room to compromise in the new 102nd Legislature. “Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don’t know where in our political discourse ‘compromise’ became a dirty word. It’s unfortunate,” he says, “because I think there’s a lot of room for that and I think we did that last session on a lot of different issues.” Though, he admits, they aren’t always the “sexy” issues that make front page news.

Steineke’s counterpart across the aisle, Peter Barca of Kenosha, is re-elected to lead his caucus. In his speech, the minority leader focuses on regaining the majority.

Like Steineke, Senate minority leader-elect Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse also reaches out to the other side of the aisle, saying one party doesn’t have all the answers. “I congratulate our new Republican leadership and I pledge to work with them when we can.” Shilling adds, “The citizens of Wisconsin want their elected officials to work together to be problem solvers for the betterment of our great state.”

Shilling admits the conversation frequently gets “vigorous” on the floor, but says, at the end of the day it’s important for lawmakers to leave their political hats at the door and recognize they are all colleagues.

Senator Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau is re-elected to be that chamber’s majority leader.

Former Representative Bill Kramer of Waukesha was the majority leader before being ousted amid a sexual assault scandal and replaced by Pat Strachota of West Bend, who didn’t seek re-election. Steineke says it’s an honor to be selected by his colleagues to represent them and, he says politicians — regardless of political persuasions — do associate in social settings every once in a while.

Democrat Dick Cates concedes 51st Assembly District race

SOSAssembly

State Assembly chambers (Photo: Jackie Johnson)

Republicans will return to the Capitol next year controlling 63 of the 99 seats in the state Assembly, after Democrat Dick Cates announced he will not seek a recount in a close race for a seat in the 51st Assembly District.

The decision means Republican Todd Novak’s Election Night victory will stand and the GOP will have its largest majority in the chamber since 1957. An initial tally of the vote on November 4 showed Cates losing the race by 59 votes. An official canvass done this week increased that margin by five votes, to 64.

In a statement, Cates said “The voters have spoken, and the margin of 64 votes is too much to overcome in this race. I have decided-reluctantly-not to ask for a recount.”