Chances of updating Wisconsin’s recall laws unclear

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the state’s recall law needs to be updated, but they may have trouble compromising.

The recall law has been used 15 times in less than a year, and there are signs that voters are losing patience. Exit polls in the June 5 recall election found that 60 percent of voters think politicians should only face recalls for malfeasance or criminal activity.

After this month’s election, Republicans and Democrats agreed the recall law can be improved, the Wisconsin State Journal reported (http://bit.ly/OfIIvF). But while there’s momentum for change, there’s little bipartisan agreement about specifically what to do and when to do it.

Democrats organized the recall elections after Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led Legislature passed a law restricting collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Walker and four other Republicans survived recall attempts this month. A sixth lawmaker, Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, asked for a recount after an official canvass showed him trailing his Democratic challenger by 834 votes out of nearly 72,000 ballots cast.

The bipartisan agreement centers on one aspect of the recall law, which was added to the state constitution in 1926. Recall targets are granted a period of time during which they can raise unlimited amounts of campaign cash, with the idea that they deserve a fair chance to defend themselves on short notice.

Walker took advantage of that window to stockpile more than $30 million six times the amount raised by challenger Tom Barrett. The sticking point, though, is the conditions under which a recall should be allowed.

Wisconsin’s current law doesn’t require that the targeted politician be accused of any form of malfeasance.

State Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, has authored a bill that would allow recalls only in cases involving allegations of crimes and malfeasance. He said he was disappointed that Democrats seemed unwilling to compromise on the proposal. “I kept hearing how the governor’s brat summit was just a photo op and that we needed to do something real,” he said. “Well, here was something real in which both sides get something they want. And it looks like we will have to wait until next session to do anything.”

But Kenosha Democrat Peter Barca, the Assembly’s minority leader, said he had a hard time believing that limiting voters’ rights would improve the law. “I think we need to tread carefully in this area,” he said. “You don’t just change the constitution over something that
happens in one tumultuous period.”

Changing the law would require altering the state’s constitution, a move that takes approval in two consecutive legislative sessions followed by passage in a statewide referendum. Short of being called into a special session, the Legislature isn’t scheduled to convene until January, which would be the earliest that changes to the recall law could be discussed. Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he didn’t foresee reconvening before the next session. He expected the topic would have to wait until January, although he wondered whether the six-month wait would cool any passion for changing the law. “These things tend to lose steam the farther you get away from them,” he said.

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