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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Republicans try to rewrite recall rules
The goal: Give Gov. Walker a better chance at keeping his job

Now that state Republicans have weakened Wisconsin's campaign finance and disclosure rules and made it harder for students, poor people and minorities to vote, they are turning their attention to another urgent matter: getting control over the recall process for Gov. Scott Walker.

Get ready. The recall wars are about to begin, and the Republicans are not going to let the effort to unseat Walker proceed easily. First order of business: grabbing power from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board.

The Republican-controlled Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules called up Kevin Kennedy, director of the GAB, for a little talking-to last Thursday. They were displeased with the way his independent organization, made up of retired judges, had decided to allow recall petition drives to proceed.

The decision that outraged the Republicans was the GAB's go-ahead to groups that want to send out recall petition forms electronically (voters would print out the forms, sign them and submit them). Voters themselves should have to write out their names and addresses, in addition to signing these forms, the Republicans argue.

Forget whether you should have to write out your name and address longhand when you sign a petition. The real issue here is: Who gets to decide the rules for the recall process?

As Sun Prairie Democrat Gary Hebl pointed out during the Thursday hearing, the Republicans are trying to turn the GAB from a watchdog into a lapdog. First, they proposed an "emergency rule change" to address the GAB's decision. That's handy for them, because while they can't reverse GAB decisions, they can kill a rule.

Also handy: They just rejiggered the rule-making process so every administrative rule change has to go through the governor's office, and the governor has full veto power.

In other words, the governor himself would have final say over the process for recalling him.

Assembly minority leader Peter Barca described it succinctly: "Allowing Gov. Walker to veto any recall rule from the GAB that he doesn't like, for an election that affects him personally, is the definition of an abuse of power."

But Kennedy, ever the diplomat, saved the governor from having to make a public power grab. Kennedy backed down during the hearing and offered to take another look at the GAB decision, avoiding the emergency rule change.

Stay tuned for the next GAB meeting - open to the public - on Nov. 9.

The Republicans' success in bullying the Government Accountability Board into backing down on this decision sets a bad precedent. Next time they don't like a GAB decision, they know they can call up Kennedy again and apply the same strong-arm tactics.

Mark Pocan, who helped set up the independent Government Accountability Board back in 2007, doesn't like that one bit. "The people of Wisconsin will not stand for Republican manipulation of what is supposed to be an independent nonpartisan agency as promised to them by the Legislature in 2007, for their own party's political gain," Pocan said.

Before 2007, the elections board that conducted investigations of politicians had to go to the Legislature to ask for funds, creating an obvious conflict of interest. Pocan and GOP leader Mike Huebsch toured editorial boards around the state in 2007 when they created the GAB, touting the new, independent watchdog that took partisan pressure out of elections and ethics investigations. Now the Republicans are trying to take us back to the way things were done in the bad old days of the caucus scandals.

When Hebl pointed out how unseemly it was for his committee to pressure the Government Accountability Board, Republican co-chair Jim Ott shot back that the committee's business is to "express legislative oversight of state agencies."

"We're well within our responsibilities," Ott said.

What does Ott consider responsible oversight? Over the summer, his committee voted to get rid of the GAB's campaign finance disclosure requirements and, for good measure, prohibited the board from making any new rules in the future requiring disclosure of big donors who pour money into state elections.

Mike McCabe, head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, wrote at the time: "They have no problem letting the wealthiest interests buy all the politicians and take ownership of our government. But even they understand that disaster awaits them if these transactions are on public display. So they are conspiring to keep them secret."

McCabe's group tried to get a copy of the legislation rolling back the GAB's campaign finance disclosure rules before the committee passed it on a straight party-line vote, but was blown off by Ott's staff. At the hearing, Ott called the police to arrest a citizen who was quietly videotaping the proceedings.

When Republican legislators decide they want new powers to "oversee" elections, there is probably something they don't want us to see at all.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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