How will the GAB replacement improve elections and ethics monitoring in Wisconsin? Answer: It won’t.
In another blog post [Author’s note: this blog post has been removed, as I misread the legislation. As it stands, however, the replacement is bad enough!], I suggest that the GAB replacement will be partisan to the hilt, not nonpartisan as suggested by Republicans. Here, I review whether proposed legislation remedies claimed deficits in GAB agency performance.
In testimony last week, Sen. Leah Vukmir described the current GAB membership as “retired judges” who were “inattentive at best.” Rep. Dean Knudson called them “ill-suited” for supervision of the agency. According to Ms. Vukmir, the creation of a larger pool of “qualified people” for membership on separate Election and Ethics Commissions will lead to superior results, bringing transparency and accountability that we don’t have with the GAB.
The members of the Government Accountability Board have this in common: they are retired judges who in their judicial lives interpreted law. Under current statutes, the GAB has the “responsibility for the administration of chs. 5 to 12, other laws relating to elections and election campaigns, subch. III of ch. 13, and subch. III of ch. 19.” Those are elections laws, campaign finance laws, and ethics laws.
One might suppose that judges were appropriate people to be interpreting laws, especially a panel of judges nominated by a committee comprising appellate judges, chosen by lot, from each district in Wisconsin, and appointed by the governor.
But this level of legal understanding did not satisfy Rep. Knudson. In last week’s hearing, he claimed that having retired judges deal with election law questions was like using soccer referees for football.
With respect to the qualifications of the current board members, he said, “The judges came without – none of them dealt with elections matters during their career. That’s not what they did. It would be very rare! Almost to an individual they didn’t deal with elections matters. And I think they’d be the first to admit that.”
So what? Doesn’t Rep. Knudson understand that judges with experience, and these people have a lot of experience, know how to read statutes and interpret them? (Silly question, I know.)
So who are the vastly more qualified people whom Rep. Knudson and Sen. Vukmir suggest should govern elections, campaign finance, and political ethics in Wisconsin?
People who are connected to the current political leadership in Wisconsin, that’s who. Not people with expertise or experience, not people with backgrounds in legal reasoning or interpretation. With the exception of putting two former municipal or county clerks (appointed by the governor, naturally) on the Elections Commission, there need be no one with experience in elections law in charge of administering our elections law. The remaining four Elections Commission members, and all of the Ethics Commission members, are political appointees. Additionally, the bill removes the requirement that the commissions have legal counsel. And while the bill keeps in place the current staff of the GAB, with the exception of Kevin Kennedy, the administrator of each commission will be chosen by majority vote of the partisan commission.
This is a significant departure from appointments to other boards, councils, and commissions in the state, where people with expertise are sought to guide policymaking and interpretation. See the numerous advisory and other boards and councils delineated in Chapter 15 of the statutes.
Why this departure here? Sen. Vukmir says this is good because we are “putting ethics in the hands of citizens.”
Not quite, Sen. Vukmir. The citizens of the state do not want politicians deciding ethics questions. It looks to this citizen that the Republicans want to put people on the commissions who don’t understand the meaning of ethics.