The head of the state Government Accountability Board was on the hot seat Tuesday at the Capitol, during a day long public hearing on Republican legislation which would dismantle the state’s elections and ethics agency. GAB director Kevin Kennedy defended the board.
“I just think this is a lot of smoke and mirrors, and we’re secret and I just don’t see that as being the way we should be with the GAB,” said Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine). “I can tell you Senator, that those smoke and mirrors aren’t changing under this legislation,” Kennedy responded. “The only thing that’s changing is you’re taking former judges and replacing them with people who have a partisan label.”
Republican legislation would dissolve the GAB, which is composed of six nonpartisan former judges, and replace it with two commissions to oversee elections and ethics law. Those would be made up of partisan appointees representing Democrats and Republicans.
Kennedy sought to defend the GAB against what he called “wildly exaggerated” claims from Republicans who want to dismantle it. “I come to work every day, trying to do what’s the best I can do with the resources I have,” Kennedy said. “My staff is dedicated. They do a darn good job.”
“What’s wildly exaggerated here is that you have this model, pristine agency that is the envy of everybody in the country,” said Representative Joe Sanfellipo (R-New Berlin), referring to the most recent audit of the GAB. “I’m sure it’s a legend in your own mind, but we have a disaster of an agency.”
“I have never backed away from the fact that we aren’t perfect, and we couldn’t do a better job on things,” said Kennedy. “Any manager in a state agency tries to do the best they can with the resources they have.”
State Representative Terese Berceau (D-Madison) noted that the audit found “no bias or malfeasance” in the GAB. “But the Republican party has turned this into trial like none I’ve seen of the other agencies that were audited by the audit bureau, that showed considerable problems,” Berceau said. “I think we call know what this is about.”
Kennedy remained calm under sharp questioning from Sanfellipo, but he had a sharper exchange with state Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), when he asked Kennedy: “What is your relationship with Lois Lerner?” Lerner came under fire after the IRS was accused of targeting conservative non-profit groups.
“Seriously? Have you no decency? That is like right out of the McCarthy era, to ask me a question like that” Kennedy replied. “I owe you no explanation about my friendships.” Kennedy said he and Lerner had a professional relationship.
The joint hearing by the Senate and Assembly Campaign and Elections committees also heard testimony on legislation to overhaul campaign finance laws, and to allow people to register to vote on-line.