Assembly Speaker wants to control whole enchilada

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

An angry Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is vowing to change how Wisconsin elections and ethics are regulated.

Vos says the Government Accountability Board (GAB) is “dysfunctional, unresponsive, and totally undemocratic.” The board which oversees elections is composed of six former judges who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

Vos complains about the board’s handling of legislativerecall petitioning and voting, and its support for the John Doe investigation into possible illegal coordination between Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups. He also disliked the model ballot offered to county clerks for this year’s general election.

“I promise you that two years from now when we are sitting here, the GAB will not be in the current format,” Vos told the State Journal. “I’m really disappointed in the way the GAB operates,” he added.

The speaker wants GAB Director Kevin Kennedy to be replaced. “Kevin Kennedy has to go,” Vos stressed earlier this month. The director is appointed by the board of ex-judges outside the civil service system. The GAB was created in 2007 to replace both the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board.

The goal then was to put distance between the politicians and decision-making about elections, lobbying and ethics. The goal was to provide an aura of neutrality in those crucial areas. Gov. Walker, a Republican, said he’d “look at it” but stresses any such change was not a priority for him.

Vos’ outspoken criticism seemed out of place –especially in the middle of the election cycle. Republicans already control virtually every aspect of state government except the Government Accountability Board.

Going into the election Republicans control both the governor’s office and the Department of Justice under the attorney general. It has partisan control of both houses of the Legislature. Gerrymandering by the 2011 GOPcontrolled Legislature seems to assure Republican control of the Legislature until 2020.

But the real strength of the Republican position may be in the judicial system. A friendly federal judge, Rudolph Randa, has issued rulings supporting conservative positions. The latest ruling barred Wisconsin from enforcing a law against so-called independent groups coordinating their pre-election activities. Those activities are at the heart of a nowstalled investigation into activities in the 2012 recall election against Walker.

Earlier Randa had ordered a halt to the John Doe probe, but his decision was overturned by an appeals court which said that was first a state matter rather than federal. In the newest round, Randa said the state could only regulate cash-for-favors corruption. At a minimum, the new Randa ruling will face an appeal, probably after the election.

What finally happens in the federal court may not matter because the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is friendly to Republican and conservative causes. The best example of how the state Supreme Court leans to the Republicans was seen in the court directing an administrative law change and then ruling that requiring voters to have photo IDs was constitutional.

Conservative groups, including three involved in the John Doe investigation, spent more than $8 million to support the election of Justices Annette Ziegler, David Prosser, Michael Gableman, and Pat Roggensack. The groups are Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Citizens for a Strong America, and the state Club for Growth.

With those friends on the court, the John Doe investigation may not be very important. Republicans should seem to have few worries, even if Vos is angry at the Government Accountability Board.

Clarification: The Capitol Newsletter column for the week of Oct. 13 about rural governments and roads focused on a report written by Thomas Harnisch, a Neillsville attorney and former state senator who represented the area. The column incorrectly identified Harnisch as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Towns Association. Although Harnisch formerly was employed by WTA, according to executive director Mike Koles, “ … he is no longer an employee and has not been one of our lobbyists.” The report was prepared independently by Harnisch for Democrat state legislators who belong to their own rural caucus. Harnisch said part of what sparked his interest in the issue of adequate funding for rural highways was a failed effort in Clark County to create county “wheel tax” for road maintenance, as well as a long history in Wisconsin of imbalance between upkeep needs and state funding for local roads.


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