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Reforming ethics, elections oversight

Olsen votes to dismantle Government Accountability Board


By Sen. Luther Olsen

I suspect that many people in the 14th Senate District have heard stories that the legislature is looking to do away with the Government Accountability Board (GAB), the state agency charged with overseeing state ethics and election laws.

Doing away with the GAB makes it sound like it will become the Wild West in Wisconsin, with no ethics or elections laws enforced. Of course, that is not what is happening. The State Senate voted on a bill last week that maintains ethics and election oversight through an Elections Commission and an Ethics Commission.

The GAB was created in 2007. It was a new agency that we hoped would monitor, investigate and administer election and ethics laws in such a way that was open, honest and fair. I supported the creation of the GAB, but it has failed to live up to our expectations. The agency has been plagued with problems, some of which have made the news, and others that were documented in a Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) report last year.

For example, the LAB found that the GAB staff did not consistently follow the GAB’s own approved fine schedule for enforcing campaign finance, ethics and lobbying law, meaning that fines could have been higher or lower than what their board had approved. The audit also found that between February 2010 and April 2014, the GAB did not conduct 16 post-election reviews to identify felons who may have voted. These reviews are required under state law.

The GAB is also required to perform audits of the electronic voting machines following elections. The LAB found that these audits were not performed until October 2013 for the general fall elections in 2008, 2010 and 2012 and that staff did not consistently follow their own established procedures when completing the audits. I have heard from my constituents that they, along with people across the state, lost trust in the GAB to carry out their duties.

Assembly Bill 388 is a way to improve election and ethics law oversight, so that Wisconsin’s tradition of clean government is preserved. This legislation creates the new bipartisan Elections and Ethics Commissions to oversee the agency staff and to be responsible for ensuring that the staff is upholding our laws. While most headlines have focused on the composition of the Elections and Ethics Commissions, the bill makes other changes that I would like to discuss as well.

One of these changes is how investigations are handled. The bill requires the commissions to notify an individual that a complaint has been filed against them and that commission is considering an investigation. This gives an individual the opportunity to respond before the commission takes action against them.

AB 388 requires the Election and Ethics Commission to update their administrative rules, guidance and opinions following court decisions so that they are enforcing the latest laws as interpreted by the court. Under the GAB, there was no requirement that the agency follow court decisions. In addition, the bill requires both commissions to regularly review their policies and procedures. These new requirements will address many of the problems unearthed by the Legislative Audit Bureau.

This new legislation will create the new bipartisan Elections and Ethics Commissions, which will consist of four members of each commission that would be appointed by legislative leadership, meaning each commission would have two appointees from the majority party and two appointees from the minority party. On the Elections Commission, the final two members would be municipal or county clerks chosen by the governor out of a pool of candidates submitted by leaders of both political parties.

Along with other legislators, I offered an amendment to the bill to add two retired judges to the four partisan members appointed by the legislative leaders on the Ethics Commission. I offered this amendment because I am concerned that having only political appointees on the Ethics Commission could lead to gridlock. I believe that retired judges, while not necessarily nonpartisan, have learned to put their personal feelings aside and make decisions based on the facts before them. I also think that having judges on the commission will act as a check on unwarranted investigations. Whichever party is pushing for an investigation will have to convince the judges to approve the investigation, ensuring that neither party has absolute control.

I agree with the concerns that the GAB was not working and the ethics and election law oversight needed to be reformed. This is why I supported AB 388 as amended and why I think this bill will help restore and preserve Wisconsin’s reputation for clean government.

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