MADISON — Legislative Republicans on Wednesday unveiled their plans to break up and then replace the Government Accountability Board, which has overseen some of the most contentious elections in state history during its short lifespan.
"It was a well-intentioned eight-year experiment, one that at one time was held up as a model for the nation," said Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, the bill's sponsor. "What we now see is no other state has followed that model, and I don’t believe any state ever will."
Republicans complain the current board, made up of six nonpartisan judges, has focused on a witchhunt of Republicans. They're especially concerned about the agency's role in the now-ended John Doe investigation of Gov. Scott Walker in Milwaukee County.
The Assembly bill, which has companion legislation in the Senate, would get rid of the current board and replace it with two commissions -- one to oversee elections and the other to handle ethics, campaign finance and lobbying.
Each commission would have a six-member board, including three Republicans and three Democrats chosen by a combination of the Legislature and the governor.
Opponents said it was troubling that lawmakers would appoint the regulators who are supposed to oversee their actions.
"Republicans want to turn our nationally respected system of nonpartisan watchdogs into partisan lapdogs," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca in a statement. "Going to a partisan model would create more opportunities for corruption to go undetected and unprosecuted."
Republicans said the current model is less accountable.
"(The future commissions) need to be accountable to the public, accountable to the Legislature and those they're regulating," Knudson said at a news conference Wednesday.
Lawmakers accuse the GAB of failing to do annual audits to know if felons were voting, which is against state law. But the agency's involvement in the Doe investigation was a large factor, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said.
"They did some things that I think were patently wrong,"said Vos, R-Burlington. "The process they went through wasn't intended when I voted for the GAB's creation."
The Assembly parlor was crowded for the announcement. The audience included GAB Director Kevin Kennedy, who waited to hear how Republicans planned to break up his agency.
"It took a caucus scandal and a lot of public outcry to set this up," Kennedy said. "What this is really about is control."
Kennedy and board chairman Judge Gerald Nichol spent several minutes telling reporters that the agency's cooperation with Doe investigators was appropriate.
The annual audits weren't performing well, and GAB leadership worked to improve them, Kennedy said. The audits eventually got done, he said.
"In most cases, what the GAB has done has been consistent with the law, and where it hasn’t, it’s been a resource issue and not intentional," he told reporters.
Under the bill, if regulators want to investigate a lawmaker, they must get the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to approve it if the probe will cost more than $25,000.
As Assembly Republicans held their news conference, Senate Republicans endorsed the GAB changes.
Walker said earlier Wednesday that he too supported the plans.
"For me, the key was having something that’s bipartisan, it’s an equal balance of party so that you have things that are done equally going forward on a bipartisan basis," Walker said.