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January 26, 2015

Amendment on picking Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice advancing quickly

WRN file photo

WRN file photo

A proposed constitutional amendment to change how the head of the state Supreme Court is selected is seeing quick movement at the Capitol.

Currently, the most senior member of the state’s high court serves as chief justice. Under the proposed change, members of the court would select the chief judge.

Democrat say the move is aimed at stripping current Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson of her power because she is often at odds with the court’s conservative majority. Republicans contend though that it’s meant to help the court deal with some of the divisions that have resulted in high-profile incidents, such as allegations that Justice David Prosser assaulted fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley while the court was reviewing Governor Scott Walker’s highly contentious collective bargaining legislation.

During an executive session on the bill Thursday at the Capitol, State Representative Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) called it a “regrettable action,” insisting that any attempt to deny the change is politically motivated is “hogwash.” State Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem) defended the move though, arguing that she likes the current chief justice, but does not believe using seniority helps to “build consensus” on the high court.

An Assembly committee voted along party lines Thursday to advance the amendment, setting up possible floor votes later this month in the Assembly and Senate. If approved, the it would likely go on a statewide ballot in April.

State Representative Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) noted the April vote will put the amendment out during an election where “voter turnout is not what it should be.” He also pointed out that it would appear on a ballot where Justice Bradley is up also for reelection, making it likely that outside groups could spend “truckloads of money” in an effort to oust her from office and push through the change.

Lawmakers question Wisconsin elections agency head over audit findings

Kevin Kennedy, Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Kevin Kennedy, Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

The head of the state Government Accountability Board defended the work done by his staff, as lawmakers push for making reforms at the agency that oversees Wisconsin elections and ethics laws.

GAB director Kevin Kennedy went before the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee Wednesday, about a month after the release of an audit that was critical of some of the agency’s practices. He responded to the findings at length, explaining how many of the situations came about and how the GAB has already been working to address them.

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 that included mandated post-election reviews to determine if felons voted in an election and audits of electronic voting equipment. It also showed the GAB falling behind on promulgating, amending or removing several administrative rules, while 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.

Kennedy told lawmakers Wednesday that many of those duties got pushed off because the agency was dealing with “one of the most politically tumultuous periods in any state capitol in America.”

The audit looked at operations over the past four years, an era that saw the GAB handling lawsuits over a voter ID requirement and legislative redistricting, along with 19 recall elections and a statewide recount in the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court Race. Kennedy said “these extraordinary events forced the board and me to make tough decisions about how to allocate and where to deploy our resources. We had to set priorities and we had to be flexible.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Republican members called into question some of the claims being made to defend the agency. After Kennedy pointed to concerns about staffing levels and retaining workers whose positions are covered with federal funds, Joint Finance Committee co-chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) said those concerns had never been brought to his attention, noting that he had just a single meeting with the agency in the past two years. The Marinette Republican told Kennedy “We take our responsibility seriously, as I assume you do, but to hear now that it’s about staffing and about commitments from the Legislature is kind of offensive…you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know about it.”

Kennedy told lawmakers that the agency is working to fix the issues highlighted in the audit. Still, Republican lawmakers have said the report is a sign of serious problems at the GAB and work is underway on legislation that could result in changes to how it operates.

Republican leaders pleased with tone of State of the State

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald talks to media after the State of the State (Photo: Jackie Johnson)

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald talks to media after the State of the State (Photo: Jackie Johnson)

While the governor offered few details in his State of the State address about the policy issues he wants the Legislature to pursue this session, Republican leaders believe he was just setting the stage for the budget address he will deliver next month.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) says the governor used his speech to talk about the good things happening in the state, noting that “there’s a lot to be proud of, not just the Packers.” Still, Vos said most of the details and top priorities are likely coming in the budget address Walker will deliver next month.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) had a similar impression of Tuesday night’s speech. “There’s a lot of stuff that I’m waiting to see…related to his budget address. I think that’s typically where we kind of see the priorities of the governor,” Fitzgerald said

Both Vos and Fitzgerald said a school accountability bill remains their top priority, and they were glad to hear Walker show support for passing that legislation. The governor also called for lawmakers to pass a bill that makes it “crystal clear” that Common Core education standards are not a requirement in Wisconsin, although Fitzgerald noted that the decision on whether to adopt those standards for math and language arts is already left up to local school districts. The Juneau Republican said that’s “part of the frustration” among many of the people who are pushing for the repeal of Common Core.

The governor also called on lawmakers to merge the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the state’s Housing and Economic Development Authority, and combine agencies that oversee state licensing of professionals. Speaker Vos said doing that outside of the budget makes sense, so any cost savings can be realized right away. Fitzgerald said that the proposal is not expected to reap huge savings for the state, but it would help meet the governor’s goal of improving state government efficiency.

Wisconsin Senate school accountability bill offers stark differences (AUDIO)

Senate Republicans unveil their school accountability bill. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Senate Republicans unveil their school accountability bill. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Senate Republicans are taking a different approach to school accountability legislation, setting up a possible showdown with Assembly Republicans early on in the new Legislative session.

State Senators Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) and Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) introduced their version of a bill Tuesday that’s aimed at providing a system for grading schools that receive taxpayer funding, which would then work to improve those that fail to meet expectations. Farrow says the goal is to “put together an accountability piece that show the parents what their schools are doing, and holds them accountable for their kids to make sure they are getting the proper education they are looking for.”

AUDIO: Senators Farrow and Olsen discuss the bill (3:15)

The proposal offers a very different approach to legislation offered by Assembly Republicans last week.

The Assembly bill has a single board overseeing public, charter, and vouchers schools, and requires failing public schools to convert to independent charters after four years. The Senate version has a board for public and charter schools, along with one for private voucher schools. It also allows school boards to maintain control of failing public schools, rather than requiring them to convert to a charter school.

Farrow says the different approaches are partially the result of legal concerns, due to constitutional requirements that grant the Department of Public Instruction oversight on schools. Farrow says he believes “there are portions of AB1 that would be challenged in court.”

Hammering out the differences could be a difficult process. A push to pass a school accountability bill last session fell apart after Republicans failed to find common ground between the two chambers. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said a conference committee may be needed to resolve the differences. Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) rejected that idea, saying “with Republicans having control of both chambers, I think that would be kind of foolish.”

The Assembly’s proposal is scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday at the Capitol.

Walker prepares for State of the State (AUDIO)

Gov. Walker delivers his 2014 State of the State address. (Photo: WRN)

Gov. Walker delivers his 2014 State of the State address. (Photo: WRN)

Just a week after starting his second term in office, Governor Scott Walker will again step to a podium in the Capitol tonight to deliver his annual State of the State address. It’s the fifth time the governor has given the speech to a joint session of the Legislature, and he’s offering few details of what vision for Wisconsin he plans to outline for lawmakers.

Speaking with reporters last week, Walker did say that the speech is likely to include one proposal he’s talked about repeatedly in recent weeks – consolidating operations or merging a handful of state agencies to improve government efficiency. Walker said such a proposal would be about making “government more effective, more efficient, more accountable to the people, to the taxpayers of this state.”

Other issues, such as a school accountability bill and rolling back the use of Common Core education standards, could also come up. Areas such as transportation funding and closing a projected $2.2 billion deficit are likely to only see mentions in the speech, with the governor holding back specific proposals on those issues until he unveils his budget plan to lawmakers next month.

AUDIO: Governor Scott Walker on State of the State plans (:32)

In fact, Marquette University political scientist Charles Franklin expects the governor will use his State of the State to lay the groundwork for his budget address. “The State of the State and the budget address are really the bookends to what’s going to happen in the next couple of years, the first setting out the broad themes in saying how well we’ve done, and then it’s really the rubber meets the road in the budget address,” Franklin said.

Franklin also expects to hear more of the Wisconsin versus Washington comparisons which the Republican governor has been making of late, as he ponders a run for President. “We saw it in the election nigh speech that he gave. We saw it in his inaugural address. I’m sure we will hear more of that comparison.”

“I do think the thing to look for – possibly in the State of the State, maybe in the budget – is the question of is there a big new, innovative policy the governor’s going to introduce,” Franklin said

Walker will deliver his annual State of the State address starting at about seven this evening to a joint session of the Legislature. You can hear the speech live tonight on many local WRN affiliate stations. WRN will also have full coverage available on our website, after the speech.