Editorial: Government Accountability Board needs to remain non-partisan

6:10 PM, Dec. 4, 2012  |  Comments
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Amid calls for bipartisanship and working together after Election Day, one state senator wants to make a state agency more partisan.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this week expressed frustration with the state Government Accountability Board, saying he was unhappy with its decisions regarding the recall elections last year and this year.

Fitzgerald thinks the GAB made decisions that favored Democrats and that a more partisan board would be better, according to the Associated Press. "I just don't think they're an independent voice at all," he said.

That's odd, since he and almost everyone else in the Legislature approved the creation of the nonpartisan board in 2007. Even Gov. Scott Walker liked it back in 2005 when he was the Milwaukee County executive and a governor hopeful.

The GAB was approved by the Legislature in 2007 to replace the Ethics and the Elections boards, which were seen as too partisan and too inefficient. Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was among those who voted for it. In fact, the bill had such bipartisan support that only two legislators, both Assembly Democrats no longer in the Legislature, opposed the plan.

The board started work in January 2008. It "is charged with oversight of Wisconsin's campaign finance, elections, ethics, and lobbying laws," according to its website. "Both the board and its staff must be non-partisan."

The six board members are former judges who are nominated by four appeals court judges, appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. Two of the current six are former Republican legislators and two others were appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, according to Common Cause.

It's troubling that Fitzgerald wants to get rid of a nonpartisan board and return to the era of partisan, political appointees, when the governor, party officials, the state Supreme Court and leaders in the Assembly and Senate appointed the members of the Elections Board.

Fitzgerald and other Republicans might not have been be pleased with all of the GAB's rulings, but neither have the Democrats. It seems a nonpartisan board is working when both sides find frustration with it at different times.

Just because one doesn't agree with a board's decision does not mean the board needs to be scrapped. That's childish. Returning to partisan, political appointments should be a non-starter for everyone in the Legislature.

In July 2005, state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, one of the lead sponsors of Senate Bill 1 to create a Government Accountability Board, criticized the Ethics and Elections boards. "What we have now is an Ethics Board that's toothless and an Elections Board that doesn't prosecute political wrongdoing," Ellis said then. "No matter how egregious the offense may be, the Elections Board usually ends up in a 4-4, partisan vote. Nothing happens."

That's the climate Fitzgerald wants to return to.

Ellis on Tuesday seemed surprised by Fitzgerald's comments. "I'm amazed at this statement," Ellis said in an interview with the Wisconsin Radio Network. "We need to make sure our elections are regulated by law, not the politicians."

Ellis is right. Wisconsin's current GAB and the way board members are chosen have been held up as a model for election administration. "The best American model is Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board, which consists of retired judges selected in a way that is designed to promote impartiality," professor Daniel P. Tokaji of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University wrote in September 2010.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette has supported the GAB in the past, while recognizing that no reform will completely eliminate politics from the process. However, the GAB represented a step forward and in the right direction. Fitzgerald's comments represent a huge step backward.

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