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Politics & Government

Wisconsin GAB Heading Toward Its Final Day

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Government Accountability Board
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A meeting of the Government Accountability Board

Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board will be replaced June 30 by two partisan panels - one to oversee elections and the other, ethics. As the GAB's end nears, retiring Executive Director Kevin Kennedy offered a mixed view of the state’s Photo ID law. He told Wisconsin Eye that Republican leaders who passed the law know it's making some voters more confident but divorces itself from the reality that some people don’t have a driver’s license or state ID and cannot easily get one.

“Photo ID provides a certain level of confidence. Most of the people have the ID they need, so in that sense, if it makes people comfortable with the process, I think it’s a good thing, but you’ve got to be able to handle the exceptions in a fair way. And what we’re doing is we’re making people expend resources they just don’t have – people who are living on the margins to begin with, and they’re entitled to participate as well,” Kennedy said.

Since 2007, Wisconsin has been one of the few states to have a non-partisan board - retired judges - oversee elections and ethics. But Republican leaders ushered in its end, insisting the board inappropriately became involved in a John Doe probe of Governor Walker’s 2012 recall campaign and made a few ill-advised ballot changes.

(The following report aired on June 8, 2016)

On Thursday, the state Government Accountability Board will convene its last scheduled meeting. The Republican-led Legislature voted to eliminate the agency, which oversees elections and ethics. Lawmakers will replace it with two entities, and appoint the people who oversee them. Stakeholders are pondering the role politics may play as the GAB disbands.

Lawmakers created the Government Accountability Board in 2007 to replace the state elections and ethics boards. The decision followed the so-called "caucus scandal," in which leaders from both parties were accused of campaigning on state time. But last year, Republican legislators voted to dissolve the GAB and again create separate the elections and ethics functions.

Kevin Kennedy has led the Government Accountability Board since its inception.

"It's unfortunate, because I think it was a good model. The fact is that the people who get to vote on the ultimate structure chose differently," Kennedy says.

Kennedy is stepping down as the GAB ceases operations late this month, and is offering opinions about the coming changes. The Republicans who pushed to disband the agency were vocal critics of Kennedy. They accused the GAB of cooperating in the John Doe probes that looked into campaign activities of Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters. Kennedy defends the board's actions, and questions the move dissolve it.

"There wasn't a single news organization that supported this change in any of its editorials. It's really all about the Legislature wanting to control the mechanism by which we select our elected officials and learn about their activities, whether it's their conflicts of interest, their campaign finance funding or the lobbyists trying to influence them," Kennedy says.

Kennedy predicts lawmakers will have greater influence over elections and ethics going forward, because they and the governor will appoint the commissioners who lead the new agencies. GAB leadership, meanwhile, has consisted of non-partisan, retired judges. Yet Mike Haas says he believes representatives from both parties will act in voters' best interest. Haas currently runs the GAB’s election division, and will take the top elections agency post on June 30.

"We've had a couple orientation session with the commissioners and they met a couple times. There seems to be a desire to continue...the consensus building and collegiality that the Government Accountability Board usually operated on. Our judges were not afraid to disagree, but they tried to obtain a consensus whenever they could," Haas says.

One of those new election commissioners is Milwaukee attorney Ann Jacobs. Senate Democratic leadership appointed her. Jacobs says it's unclear whether partisanship will rear its head. But she says things should work out fine, if commissioners focus on running well-administered, fair elections.

"As long as we all share that goal -- and I genuinely believe everyone who's been appointed thus far shares those goals -- we will be able to work together, going forward," Jacobs says.

Another incoming commission member is Madison attorney Don Millis. He was appointed by the Republican leader of the state Senate. Millis says the new panel actually might have an advantage over the judges who've governed the GAB. Although judges run for office, they hold non-partisan posts. Millis says partisan appointees may know more, because they've been politically active in some fashion.

"The people who are familiar with politics, I think they bring something to the decision making process," Millis says.

The new election commission will do things such as certify candidates and approve voting equipment. And members will implement mandates from the Legislature, such as creating an online voter registration system. Their counterparts on the new ethics panel will oversee campaign finance and lobbying matters.

While the Government Accountability Board is disbanding, many of the workers in its office will continue their same jobs. They'll just have new titles, phone numbers and letterhead.

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