GOP seeks to ram through laws undoing Wisconsin’s good government tradition

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

In times of war and national crisis, Congress has had to respond nimbly, passing laws without going through the usual legislative process, which includes “readings” — dissemination of proposals to legislators — along with holding debates and public hearings. For example, Congress bypassed normal protocol to enact laws responding to the Great Depression, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said David T. Canon, professor of political science at UW-Madison.

But federal and state governments have seldom, if ever, resorted to such deviations from the legislative process in the absence of public emergencies, Canon noted. He and other political experts are concerned that Wisconsin’s Republican leadership, in the absence of any emergency, is circumventing normal procedures to quickly enact a series of measures drastically changing both election laws and the ground rules for how state workers are hired and fired. 

Besides lacking an underlying public emergency that would justify fast-tracking the GOP’s legislative priorities, there’s been no public demand — or even interest — in refashioning the laws. The changes appear based only on Republican lawmakers’ self-interests.

Canon and many others lament that Republican leaders are turning their backs on Wisconsin’s century-old stature as the standard bearer of good government. With the GOP’s proposed changes comes the potential danger that Wisconsin will devolve into a cesspool of early 20th-century-style political corruption.

Fast-tracking partisan ‘reforms’

In June, Republicans tried to sneak a measure gutting the state’s open records law nto the biennial budget bill at the 11th hour. They backed off after an outcry from the public, but even Republican apologists such as talk radio’s Charlie Sykes were red-faced over the incident.

Although GOP leaders abandoned that effort, “Just the fact that they even tried to do this in the first place should bother everybody in this state,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Madison, said at the time.

That concern seems prophetic now that the state’s GOP leaders have turned to new ways of shielding public officials who engage in unethical and illegal campaign activities. Critics say the GOP’s government “reforms” are largely motivated by the GOP’s desire to avenge the bipartisan John Doe investigations of Gov. Scott Walker and his staffers, some of whom landed in jail.

The first piece of legislation Republicans went after was the John Doe law, which they rewrote to exclude political investigations (see page 6). That was just the beginning. There are several other pieces of redefining legislation speeding to Walker’s desk. The three that rise to the most transformative level are:

• The annihilation of the Government Accountability Board.

• An overhaul of campaign finance law that will allow unlimited, anonymous money in Wisconsin elections.

• The end of Wisconsin’s current civil service system, which could usher in Chicago-style political patronage and cronyism.

Government Accountability Board

By a nearly unanimous vote, the GAB was formed in 2008, largely in reaction to a scandal two years’ prior that sent members of both parties to jail. At the time of its creation, both parties hailed the GAB as a shining example of Wisconsin’s bipartisan commitment to clean, open government.

The GAB administers and enforces Wisconsin laws governing elections, ethics, campaign financing and lobbying. It’s composed of the Elections Division and the Ethics and Accountability Division.

Six retired state judges comprise the board. The governor appoints them from a list of candidates selected by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the Senate must approve them. 

Despite the bipartisan makeup of the GAB, including appointments made by Walker, Republicans say the group organized a vicious, partisan-motivated witch-hunt of Walker’s campaign activities.

In response, GOP leaders have decided to eliminate the GAB and break it into two separate entities, one to oversee elections and another to monitor ethics and accountability. Each would have a bipartisan board consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats — and perhaps two judges. Details remained sketchy as WiG went to press.

The unspoken but widely recognized goal of this transformation is to create built-in partisan gridlock that will prevent the board from moving forward on investigations. That’s exactly what’s happened on the federal level, according to Canon.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign called the proposal “a recipe for corruption.” The notion of eliminating partisanship by switching to a partisan oversight board is oxymoronic, they emphasize.

Republicans claim the GAB in its current form is guilty of overreach and anti-GOP sentiment. That claim ignores that the board’s members are bipartisan and judges rather than politicians.

Canon said the facts belie Republican claims. The Legislative Audit Bureau, also in the crosshairs of GOP leaders, looked at three or four years of GAB decisions and found no evidence of partisanship.

Although the GAB participated in the John Doe cases against Walker, the board also has taken high-profile  actions against Democratic interests. For instance, during the state Senate recall races, the GAB allowed Republicans to place fake candidates on the ballots to improve their odds of holding on to their seats, which drew outcries of pro-Republican bias from Democrats. The GAB looked into the infamous “lost votes” in the Supreme Court race between Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg. Republican Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus claimed to have found 14,315 votes after Kloppenburg declared herself the winner by a few hundred votes, a “discovery” that handed the victory to Prosser.

The GAB investigated Nickolaus’ handling of the votes and determined the staunch Republican had engaged in no wrongdoing.

Those two examples refute Republican leaders’ claims that the GAB has been “out to get” them. The fact that the board has run afoul of both parties suggests that it’s performing its duties in a non-partisan manner.

Despite the potential damage of eliminating the GAB, the proposal has failed to generate much attention from the public, let along outrage.

“A lot of people can’t understand why (the GAB overhaul) is such an important thing to care about,” Canon said. “It’s hard to get the kind of very strong reaction that you got with the backlash over the open records law.”

The Assembly quickly passed the measure to get rid of the GAB, but four Republican senators — Luther Olsen, Sheila Harsdorf, Jerry Petrowski, and Rob Cowles have reportedly stalled it in the Senate, as of press time.

Campaign finance law

Republicans also are fast-tracking a complete rewrite of Chapter 11 of the Wisconsin Statutes, which sets campaign donation limits as well as disclosure and reporting requirements. Originally, it also prohibited  coordination among candidates, political parties and independent groups.

The GOP plan will double the amount of contributions candidates for state and local office can legally accept. The plan will also increase contribution limits every five years to account for inflation.

The bill removes regulations that prevented campaigns from coordinating their communication strategies with political action committees, which can raise unlimited sums of money and provide anonymity to their donors. At the same time, the law leaves in place a ban on coordinating advertising and promotional materials that ask voters to elect or defeat a specific candidate.

The change in campaign coordination rules reflects a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that said coordination is legal so long as it advocates for or against issues rather than candidates. But federal law prevents any coordination between PACs and campaigns, which means the state would have one set of rules governing state elections and a different set governing state elections for federal office-seekers.

The ruling on state campaign coordination was issued in a John Doe case involving Walker’s 2012 recall campaign staff, which coordinated their activities with supportive PACs. The court’s four conservative justices sided with the PACs’ position that the coordination was protected by the state’s constitutional guarantee of free speech. But an ethical shadow hangs over that ruling, because the prevailing justices received at least $8 million in campaign contributions from the PACs involved in the case.

“The Republican-led effort to scrap Wisconsin’s proud tradition of clean, open government and stringent campaign finance and ethics laws is shameful,” state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said. “Under the guise of protecting free speech, this proposal opens the floodgates and allows more money to flow into the pockets of politicians as fast and as often as special interests can write a check.”

The campaign finance law has moved with such speed that Spreitzer and others complained there was no time to review or analyze the proposal. An 18-page amendment to the original Assembly bill passed out of committee before Democrats even saw it. As of press time, the bill was scheduled for a vote within a week.

Civil service rules

Assembly Republicans also passed a rewrite of Wisconsin’s civil service laws that would make it easier to hire and fire people for state jobs.

In addition to shortening the timeline for new hires, the bill would end the civil service exam for state government job applicants and replace it with a “resume system.” By making the process subjective, campaign donors and workers could be rewarded with jobs, regardless of their qualifications.

Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, insisted, “This bill will simply accelerate the hiring process, making it infinitely more likely that we’re going to be able to attract the best candidate.”

But the change will unquestionably open the door to hiring and firing decisions based on personal decision-making as opposed to objective criteria. Democrats contend the process will lead to patronage hiring and firing. Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said it would create an “army” of “partisan lackeys.”

“(Government workers) will owe their allegiance to General Walker, or they will be dishonorably discharged if they don’t carry the water for General Walker,” Hebl said.

The plan passed the Assembly on a party line vote and, as of press time, was headed to the Senate, where Republicans were considering a competing version that will probably pass during the time this issue of WiG is on newsstands.

Ironic GOP revolt

Over a century ago, America was in the throes of a shameful chapter that included child slavery, slumlords and routine police shakedowns of small businesses. Laborers toiled under dangerous conditions for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and were lucky if they were paid enough to survive. Injuries and deaths on the job were commonplace and victims had no legal recourse.

The situation was made possible by a small minority of wealthy oligarchs who ran the United States government — along with the governments of states and municipalities — by paying politicians to enact laws and policies designed to make them wealthier. If they couldn’t get what they wanted by buying elected officials, they bribed judges and police.

Political deals were made in back rooms and ballot boxes were rigged by partisan grunts who were rewarded with government jobs for which they were unqualified. 

But in the earliest years of the 20th century, Wisconsinite Bob La Follette — a Republican congressman, U.S. senator and governor — became a national figure by cleaning up Wisconsin’s corruption and cronyism, earning him the title of “Fighting Bob.” 

Today, with no apparent sense of irony or shame, La Follette’s party is in the process of undoing the reforms he championed — right in Fighting Bob’s own backyard.

Or, as Spreitzer put it, “In just shy of two weeks, Republicans will have unraveled 100 years of tradition.”