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.