GOP moving to tighten iron grip on state power

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Republicans seem ready to consolidate their control of state government in Wisconsin with both legislative and judicial moves.

Conservatives now control much of the government. Gov. Scott Walker is a Republican who wants to be the next president of the United States.

Republicans have large majorities in both houses of the Legislature, thanks in part to GOP gerrymandering of district lines in 2011.

Election laws have been changed. Voting hours have been reduced. Photo IDs will be required to vote – moves that seemed aimed at the poor and elderly.

The State Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a majority, recently halted a John Doe investigation and opened the campaign door to consulting and collaboration among all groups supporting candidates in a state election.

One could argue that it already amounts to an iron grip on government. But Republicans and conservatives are not done. Among the ideas being floated in the State Capitol are:

• Changing the composition of the Government Accountability Board which oversees elections, lobbying and ethics. Currently, the board consists of six retired judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. The board appoints its staff.

The push for change may range from returning to a system in which the politicians control the issues and regulations to requiring Senate approval of the GAB director selected by the board.

• Removing legislators from the board of the scandal-plagued Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). One plan would replace the four legislative members with two more appointees by the governor and two other citizen members appointed by the Republican legislative leaders.

The two Democratic legislators on WEDC have struggled for a public airing of a very critical report by the Legislative Audit Bureau of the agency’s distribution of funds. There even is talk about replacing the audit bureau with inspectors within government agencies.

Walker initially served as chairman of the WEDC, an agency which he proposed and touted as boosting job creation in Wisconsin. The governor’s latest budget bill called for removing himself and legislators from the board and merging WEDC with the state’s lowincome housing agency.

The Legislature rejected the agency merger idea but kept lawmakers (two from each party) on the board. It did accept Walker’s idea of removing himself from the board.

Clearly, Walker leaving the board may be an effort to reduce the potential political damage in his efforts to become the Republican presidential nominee. The national media may focus on WEDC woes if Walker surges to the front of the GOP presidential pack.

Conservatives seem to have retreated from drastically changing the state’s open-records law, but information has surfaced that the governor’s office was playing a significant role in the move. Reporters have asked for and are still awaiting details on the role of Walker’s office.

Lingering in the background is whether the State Supreme Court would limit what information held by the governor’s office is made available to the public.

The high court now is being asked to give Walker and the Legislature the power to write administrative rules for elementary and secondary education. The rules could become important tools as voucher and charter schools expand. The state superintendent of public instruction, elected statewide, now writes the rules.

An appeals court has ruled a Republican-written law to give the power to the governor was unconstitutional. Walker’s friends on the Supreme Court might see it differently.

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