The Gift of GAB

GAB_Offc_logo_250.pngState agencies are legion and exist primarily to do the day-to-day work of governance. All of them are important to one or more so-called "interest groups." But none are more important to the largest interest group of all — all current and all potential voters in Wisconsin — than the Government Accountability Board, or GAB. In 2007, and with an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote, the legislature gave the gift of GAB to the people of Wisconsin. But now the Republicans want to renege.

GAB is a gift because it has been recognized as a national model for nonpartisan regulation of laws governing our elections, campaigns and lobbying. In short, the agency is a key safeguard against corruption in Wisconsin government at all levels. 

It consists of six members, all former state judges, who serve staggered, six-year terms. Board members are appointed by the Governor, and serve part-time, receiving per diems for each meeting they attend. The Governor of Wisconsin nominates a judge to fill a vacancy from a roster of potential Board members previously selected by a panel of Wisconsin Court of Appeals judges; and the nominee must be confirmed by the Wisconsin State Senate. Four members of the current board were appointed by Governor Walker.

takeAction.jpgAll citizens of Wisconsin — Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal — should be concerned about legislation about to be introduced that will revert to the status quo ante 2007. In the bad old days, the GAB's responsibilities were divided between a State Ethics Board and a State Elections Board. These two entities were replaced by the unified GAB precisely because they were not able to prevent the great "Legislative Caucus Scandal" of 2001-2002, the most serious political scandal to rock Wisconsin in a century (Common Cause in Wisconsin, July 2013).

So there are lots of good political reasons for people all over the state to make their opposition to scrapping GAB known. One easy way is to sign our petition and join Grassroots North Shore in a rapid response effort: writing and calling individual legislators, writing letters to the editors of news outlets state-wide, and sharing information on social media site.

However, we shouldn't overlook the practical reasons for saving GAB. The scope of the GAB's responsibilities and its engagement with the hundreds of campaigns, election officials in every municipality and county, and every lobbyist and government official can be difficult to comprehend. Fortunately, the current Chair of the GAB, Judge Nichol, has written an open letter to the leaders of the state senate and assembly laying out just what is at stake and why this fall is an especially critical point in the current election cycle. You can read his entire letter, but here are a few critical points:

[The GAB supports] Wisconsin’s 1,853 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks. In addition, the elections staff is responsible for reviewing nomination papers for 43 judicial races in the Spring Election and 195 congressional, legislative and district attorney races in the General Election.

Beyond those normal functions, 2016 will be the first year of full statewide use of photo ID, and clerks and election workers need support and training to ensure that the law is implemented correctly. In addition, our elections and IT staff are finishing work on a major upgrade to the Statewide Voter Registration System, which will roll out to clerks in early 2016 and will require significant training and support efforts. Also, significant administrative efficiencies will be lost by returning to two separate agencies. Finally, I understand legislators are working on a major overhaul of campaign finance laws to comply with recent court rulings, which may require significant changes to the Campaign Finance Information System, manuals and training for campaign committee treasurers.

Judge Nichol points out that the legislature has not availed itself of the statutory remedy for resolving tensions that have arisen because Republicans have, in Nichol's words, "unfairly maligned" the board's professional staff as "partisan:"

During the course of the past year there has been extended media coverage of the Legislature’s dissatisfaction with the Government Accountability Board. By law, the Legislature has the unique opportunity to provide advice and direction to the agency through the Joint Legislative Committee on Organization. Wis. Stat. § 5.05(5f). In eight plus years, the Legislature and the Board have not opened this channel of communication.

In the last twelve months, such accusations have twice been investigated by the Legislative Audit Bureau. Both reports clear GAB of any malfeasance, partisanship, or wrong-doing. In light of the disruptions Judge Nichol describes and with the results of the Legislative Audit Bureau's investigations now in hand, Wisconsin's legislators will be doing all citizens of the state an enormous disservice if they nevertheless act out of partisan pique and try to "fix" an agency that isn't broken.


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From Watchdog to Lapdog: What "Replacing" the GAB Means



Just a week after announcing his run for the presidency, Scott Walker announced that "he supports dismantling and replacing the state’s independent elections and ethics board.... In its place, Walker said, he supports the creation of 'something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin.' Walker left open the possibility that a replacement board could have partisan leadership, compared to the current board, made up of six former judges" (Wisconsin State Journal, July 21, 2015).

The independent elections and ethics board referred to above is the Government Accountability Board. For more than a year, the GAB has been the subject of vitriolic attacks from conservatives, including the Wall Street Journal and columnists like George Will in the Washington Post. According to, 

The Wall Street Journal editorial board, in one of its twenty-plus pieces on the Wisconsin [John Doe] probe, has described the investigation as proof that "campaign-finance laws have become a liberal weapon to silence political opponents," and portrayed the investigation as an "effort by Democratic prosecutors to criminalize political speech in Wisconsin. The Journal editorial board has stated explicitly that "the legal backlash to the probe offers a rare chance to dismantle" what it calls Wisconsin's "regulatory machine." [, July 1, 2015]

The Wisconsin State Journal — not exactly a mouthpiece for progressive politics — recently published a sharp-edged editorial denouncing efforts by Scott Walker, Robin Vos, and Scott Fitzgerald (among others) to kill the Government Accountability Board so as to tighten Republican control of all aspects of governance in Wisconsin. In it, the editors point out that the GOP-run legislature had to change the law

to give auditors sweeping access to the GAB’s secret investigatory records. State auditors subsequently scoured those documents and last week released their findings — that the GAB is diligently doing its difficult job....

Top GOP leaders who were hoping to find something — anything — to criticize in the audit were silent last week. We hope that means they’ll call off their self-serving bid to replace the strong and independent GAB with a weak panel of their partisan pals. [Wisconsin State Journal, July 21, 2015]

The goal of the well-financed, right-wing assaults is clear: eliminate WI campaign finance law by turning the watchdog agency charged with oversight of campaigns and elections into a Republican lapdog.

The Wisconsin State Journal editorial board's hope that the legislature will cease its efforts to dismantle the nonpartisan agency is all well and good. But we all know that hope is not a plan. Take action now: volunteer to write letters to editors and news outlets, to post links to the volunteer page on all your social media platforms, to write and call your legislators (and all the others too), but most importantly to sign our petition calling on the legislature to say NO to tampering with the GAB.

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When the Minimum Is Not Enough

“…no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages
to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Franklin Roosevelt 
1938 Fair Labor Standards Act – minimum wage: 25 cents

The whole subject of minimum wage laws and their effects on local and regional economies is a contentious one. We’re at an important juncture in the debate now because a number of municipalities have recently passed ordinances to raise minimum wages. So we have some natural experiments we can watch over the next few years. While we’re waiting for those efforts to play out, though, we can turn to a large number of highly respected studies of the matter to see whether raising a minimum wage is, as its critics claim, a “job killer.”

The Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) comprehensive study, Raising the Minimum Wage to $10.10 per hour in Wisconsin, found that

increasing the minimum wage does not “kill jobs.” 600 economists, including seven Nobel prize winners and eight past presidents of the American Economic Association, have called for an increase in the minimum wage. Their letter sums up the case on jobs: ‘In recent years there have been important developments in the academic literature on the effect of increases in the minimum wage on employment, with the weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.’

This chart illustrates the disconnect between productivity and wages, and what wages would be had they kept pace with productivity.


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Is the FIX in?

CMuYnLNUAAALBu7.jpgScott Walker and Robin Vos are hatching plots to tighten their grip on the government of Wisconsin. How? By "FIXING" what isn't broken.

At the top of the list is the Government Accountability Board. For more than a year, news reports and opinion columns have been vehicles for accusing the GAB of favoring Democrats. For example, there's the piece by Matt Pommer in the GazetteXtra from October 21, 2014. The article quotes Vos saying "the Government Accountability Board (GAB) is 'dysfunctional, unresponsive, and totally undemocratic.... 'I promise you that two years from now when we are sitting here, the GAB will not be in the current format'" (GazetteXtra). The new format is to be partisan: "[Vos] said he would like to see partisan appointees have a role in administering campaign finance laws" (JSOnline, Aug 4, 2015).

The push for this "FIX" has been vocal and fierce, but recent developments may finally turn the tide against this naked political power grab. The Legislative Audit Bureau has completed two investigations of the GAB in recent months. The first looked at the operations of the agency and "found no problems with the G.A.B.’s financial accounting or spending, and called for no significant changes regarding the core duties and performance of the Board or its staff" (G. A. B. Statement Regarding LAB Audit, Dec 12, 2014). The second audit, examining the GAB's handling of complaints about elections, campaigns, or lobbying, found no significant problems with the board's handling of its responsibilities. Significantly, the report, released on August 20, 2015, describes an engaged Board that probes, evaluates and considers the materials and recommendations presented by staff.

But never mind all that, key GOP leaders say. The same day the report was released, "Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, called for GAB director Kevin Kennedy's resignation, calling the GAB a 'rogue agency that ignores state law and operates against its founding principles'" (CapTimes, August 20, 2015).

So the FIX IS IN: if we don't stop them, the Republicans will turn our nonpartisan election watchdog into another one of their lapdogs. 

But WE CAN STOP IT. In June citizens rose up and squashed the last minute budget inclusion that would have made a mockery of our open records law. To safeguard the GAB, to protect the agency that guards against illegal campaign activities and ensures free and fair elections in Wisconsin, we need to do it again: ORGANIZE and FIGHT BACK.

You can help by joining our RAPID RESPONSE TEAM. We'll give you all the tools you need to GIVE 'EM HELL:

  • templates for letters to the editors of media outlets all over the state
  • contact information for every legislator
  • templates for letters to every legislator
  • a list of the 24 Republican legislators who voted to establish the GAB in 2007 and who are still in the legislature (we'll want to target them especially)
  • scripts for calling legislators
  • tips on using all your social media networks to spread the word and garner support
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The Future of Voting in America

letPeopleVote.jpegWhile work intensifies to ensure that every voter in Wisconsin is properly prepared to vote in next year’s series of elections, additional legal and legislative efforts are underway that challenge the restrictions now associated with voting.

Most people are aware of the provision that requires a citizen present a specific type of identification at the polls to be able to vote.   But general awareness of the other new rules is not as wide-spread.  Among the other challenges to the right/ability to vote, the new laws

  • Reduced the early voting period from 30 to 12 days;
  • Eliminated weekend and evening voting;
  • Eliminated straight-ticket voting for all but overseas and military voters, adding to wait times at the polls;
  • Required proof of residence when registering to vote, except for overseas or military voters;
  • Barred the state from certifying statewide voter registrars, meaning anyone who registers voters can only do so in a particular county where they’re certified;
  • Made it harder for college students to use their IDs as proof of residence when registering to vote;
  • Increased residency requirements from 10 to 28 days, except for presidential elections;
  • Required that those who move within the state in the four weeks prior to an election vote in their old location not their new one;
  • Eliminated the faxing or emailing of absentee ballots, except to overseas or military voters;
  • Barred municipal clerks from returning absentee ballots to voters so they can fix mistakes;
  • Required that an area for poll monitors be set up between three and eight feet from the table where voters sign in.

In May of this year, Hillary Clinton’s top campaign lawyer, acting independently from the campaign, filed a new legal challenge to the slew of restrictive voting laws signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. According to MSNBC,

The complaint charges that the “right [to vote] has been under attack in Wisconsin since Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and both houses of the State Legislature in the 2010 election.”  It seeks to overturn not only the state’s controversial voter ID law, but also a host of other restrictive measures that have largely flown under the radar. All these measures, the suit alleges, have already made it harder for Wisconsinites to cast a ballot, and target “African-American, Latino, young, and/or Democratic voters in Wisconsin in particular,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act. ["Top Clinton lawyer challenges Walker’s voting restrictions",, June 1, 2015]

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A Chapter In the Story About the Bad Guys and the Government Accountability Board

The Government Accountability Board in Wisconsin was formed as a result of the ‘Caucus Scandal’ of 2002 when six top state legislative leaders--Republicans and Democrats--were investigated, brought to trial, and ultimately convicted of criminal misconduct in public office.  Some served jail time and all were forced from office.  Wisconsin’s reputation as a paragon of progressivism and good government for the people was sullied.  The state was disgraced.

After years of intensive negotiation and planning, the Wisconsin Legislature passed, 2007 Act I with bipartisan support.  Two former agencies, the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board, were abolished and the responsibilities of both former boards were placed under the direction of the non-partisan Government Accountability Board (GAB).  The statute requires that the GAB be structured in such a way that it is further removed from partisan politics than any other state authority in the US.  It is made up of six former judges who are nominated by four (one from each district) appeals court judges.  The governor then appoints one of the nominees who must be confirmed by at least a two-thirds majority in the Senate.  Each six-year term is staggered, allowing for one member’s term to expire yearly.  The Board and its staff must be non-partisan.  Kevin Kennedy, the present director and general counsel of the GAB, is one of the foremost election law experts in the state.  “Wisconsin is the only state with a truly non-partisan board structure. It is unique among the states in requiring supermajority confirmation of new commissioners, so as to insulate board members from partisan pressures. This does not guarantee decision making that is blind to partisan effects, but it provides a greater level of protection against partisan decision making than the structure of any other state” (Daniel P. Tokaji UC Irvine Law Review).

No Katherine Harris for us. At least until now. 

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In case you missed it, there's a move afoot to do away with the Legislative Audit Bureau, a watchdog agency responsible for ensuring clean and effective government in Wisconsin. Knowing a bit of its history and purpose will help you understand why Republicans are now trying to get rid of it.

The Legislative Audit Bureau was created by Chapter 659, Laws of Wisconsin 1965. Prior to the creation of the Bureau, financial audits were performed by the Department of State Audit, an executive branch department created in 1947.  2007 Wisconsin Act 126 created a fraud, waste, and mismanagement hotline that allows the public and individuals within state government to report suspected fraud and other improper acts by state agencies, employees, and contractors.  (See the online information page for the Legislative Audit Bureau.)

LAB is a nonpartisan legislative service agency created to assist the Legislature in maintaining effective oversight of state operations. The Bureau conducts objective audits and evaluations of state agency operations to ensure financial transactions have been made in a legal and proper manner and to determine whether programs are administered effectively, efficiently, and in accordance with the policies of the Legislature and the Governor. The results of these evaluations are provided to the Legislature, along with recommendations for improvements in agency operations.

Audits currently in progress include:

  • Government Accountability Board Complaints (A review of complaints considered by the Government Accountability Board)
  • Wastewater Permitting (A review of certain types of permits issued by the Department of Natural Resources through the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program).
  • Employee Trust Funds (A financial audit of the Department of Employee Trust Funds, including an actuarial audit of the Wisconsin Retirement System).
  • State of Wisconsin Financial Audit (An audit of the State of Wisconsin's financial statements for fiscal year 2014-15).
  • University of Wisconsin System (A financial audit of the University of Wisconsin System for fiscal year 2014-15).

Read on for an account of what's going on and how we're going to stop it.

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