State 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.
All 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.