October 13, 2015

Hearing underway on Wisconsin elections agency overhaul

File photo: WRN

File photo: WRN

State lawmakers opened what’s expected to be a highly contentious hearing this morning on legislation that would make major changes to the oversight of Wisconsin election and ethics issues.

The bill, introduced last week by majority Republicans, would split the duties of the Government Accountability Board into two new commissions. One would be tasked with oversight of elections issues and the other would deal with enforcement of ethics laws. Each of the six-member panels would be run by partisan appointments.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), a sponsor of the legislation, told a packed hearing room at the Capitol that the changes are needed because the GAB has failed to carry out many of the tasks it has been charged with over the last eight years. “Wisconsinites deserve to have an effective agency overseeing one of their most important constitutional rights, and it is our job to ensure that this occurs,” Vukmir said.

Democrats on the committee heaped criticism on the proposal, which Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa (D-Milwaukee) argued would turn a “nationally recognized political watchdog into a partisan lapdog.”

Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) accused backers of the bill of carrying out a political vendetta against the GAB because of its involvement in a John Doe investigation. The probe, which was blocked by the state Supreme Court earlier this summer, was investigating what prosecutors believes was illegal coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative outside groups. The elections agency has been under fire for allowing staff to be involved with what Republicans contend was a “partisan witch hunt.”

Vukmir denied the John Doe was the main reason for the changes, citing a long list of problems at the agency over the course of the past eight years. Still, she argued “I believe the agency surpassed its statutory authority and avoided its statutory obligations by pursuing large scale criminal investigations, regardless of merit, plausibility, or constitutionality,” and called the GAB’s involvement in the John Doe a “clear abuse of their power.”

The hearing is expected to run for much of the day Tuesday, with lawmakers also expected to take testimony on a bill that would make a number of changes to state campaign finance laws.

Milwaukee Theater selected as site for GOP presidential debate

Milwaukee will be the site for the Republican presidential debate on Tuesday, November 10.

The Fox Business Network is hosting the event, and announced Monday they will conduct the event at the Milwaukee Theater.

This will be the fourth debate between the Republican contenders.  So far, Fox Business Network has not announced their criteria for participation.  Previous debates placed candidates in a main event and an under card based on recent polling results.

There are four more debates before the February Iowa Caucuses, which often narrow the field in big elections.


Walker administration releases security, travel costs

Governor Walker discusses global trade in UK (PHOTO: Chatham House)

Governor Walker discusses global trade in UK (PHOTO: Chatham House)

Governor Scott Walker’s administration has released cost estimates for his security detail and trade missions he took earlier this year while exploring his now-ended presidential run.

The figures, released late Friday afternoon in response to open records requests from multiple media agencies, show the state spent about $125,000 on security for Governor Walker during the first half of the year. Walker’s political organization, Our American Revival, and campaign have reimbursed the state for $58,000 so far, and have indicated they plan to cover the remaining balance.

Wisconsin governors have historically been provided around the clock protection by the State Patrol, with security levels based on the discretion of the agency. Taxpayers will still cover the cost of the salary and benefits of those agents, but groups connected to Walker agreed earlier this year to cover other travel expenses during periods when the governor was traveling for political purposes.

The Department of Administration has not yet released figures detailing Walker’s security costs after he formally announced his presidential campaign in early July. The governor spent much of his time out of the state campaigning after launching his presidential bid. He dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination last month.

Also on Friday, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation released figures detailing expenses related to Walker’s travel to Western Europe and Canada earlier this year. According to WEDC, the state spent $29,470 on the Canada trip and $117,300 on the European Union trade mission. Both trips came in under what the agency had budgeted for their totals costs.

Watchdog wary of Wisconsin campaign finance law changes (AUDIO)

Jay Heck

Jay Heck

Republicans have proposed a bill that makes multiple changes to the state’s campaign finance laws, and one watchdog believes the plan will lead to a full-scale deregulation of money in state politics.

The legislation includes a number of provisions, such as doubling the money individuals can give to candidates, requiring more frequent filing of finance reports, and making clarifications on corporate contributions to political parties and committees. Common Cause in Wisconsin director Jay Heck says many of those proposals are not problematic and, in the case of upping the contribution limits, make sense in the face of inflation and laws other states have adopted.

What concerns him is language that allows for open coordination between third party issue advocacy groups and candidates, something Heck argues basically invalidates contribution limits in state races. He asks “if you can give $2,000 to a state Senate candidate, and then another $200,000 to an outside group that can coordinate with his campaign, what’s the point of the $2,000 contribution limit?”

Issue advocacy groups are largely unregulated in Wisconsin. The organizations can take in nearly unlimited money and are not subject to disclosure laws. The ads they run typically seek to inform voters about a candidate or issue and avoid the so-called magic words, such as “vote for” or “defeat.” Instead, they may ask voters to “call” a candidate about their stance on an issue. Heck says very few voters make any distinction though between them and traditional political ads, so he argues they are widely viewed as either supporting or attacking a particular candidate.

Prior to a state Supreme Court decision this summer, political campaigns and those groups were not allowed to coordinate their efforts. However, in striking down a politically-charged John Doe investigation into coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s campaign and outside groups, a conservative majority on the court said that coordination is not prohibited by state law. 

Republicans backers of the measure say the language in their bill simply backs up that court ruling. In unveiling the changes this week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) asserted “even if you disagree with the court decisions, we must update our statutes so people know what the law is, what they can and cannot do.”

Heck argues that decision is far from being settled law though. “No federal court in the country agrees with that decision,” Heck asserts, adding that he’s fairly confident the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn the ruling if it is appealed. “Even the U.S. Supreme Court, which gave us the Citizens United decision in 2010, didn’t go so far as to say it’s okay to coordinate with outside groups.”

AUDIO: Jay Heck discusses the potential impact of changes in campaign finance law (:50)

If passed in to law, Heck believes it will open Wisconsin to a flood of “dark money” in political campaigns, where the public has no idea who may be bankrolling efforts to influence elections. “There’s much more money that will flow that will be totally secret…we won’t know where it’s coming from anymore,” he warns.

Regents okay lifting UW Madison out-of-state enrollment cap

UW-Madison photo

UW-Madison photo

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System has approved a plan to lift UW-Madison’s cap on out-of-state students. UW System President Ray Cross told the Regents on Friday that the state’s flagship university faces a demographic reality – a declining pool of Wisconsin high school graduates to choose from.

“The number high school graduates, which peaked at about 71,000 in 2009, is now down to almost 64,000,” Cross said. “We’re requesting a four year waiver on the out-of-state cap.” The waiver would kick in for the fall of 2016. Cross and UW Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank pledged to enroll at least 3,600 in-state students in each UW Madison freshman class. This year there are 3,617.

Cross noted that UW Madison competes with other top-flight universities, in attracting qualified high school graduates. “We are losing too many really good, talented students to other states . . . because they are being recruited to go elsewhere,” Cross said. “We can’t afford to lose that talent.”

“In the face of declining high school numbers, we can’t just be doing business as usual,” Blank said. With the state also facing a declining working-age population, Blank said they’ll also focus on keeping UW grads in Wisconsin. “If our first commitment is to Wisconsin students, our second commitment a partnership with Wisconsin businesses to try to attract more of the students who graduate from our institution to stay in Wisconsin.”

“If the number of Wisconsin residents is staying the same, arguing that this proposal will help us attract more talented Wisconsin residents is not sufficient,” said a statement Madison Laning, Chair of Associated Students of Madison. “It is clear that this proposal was put together by a small group of people, who were rushed, in order to fill short term budget holes in our university.”