Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, the election and campaign agency that its supporters laud as a pioneering success and its critics call a failed experiment, ends this month after nearly a decade in existence. The board, born in bipartisanship from the state’s caucus scandal in 2001, when both parties ran political campaigns from the Capitol, was the only nonpartisan model of its kind in the country with six former judges appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the state Senate to oversee elections. It was armed with a budget unfettered by Legislative oversight to investigate campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying complaints. Its dissolution on June 30, which came with a rewrite of the state’s campaign finance rules, signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Scott Walker, is a necessary reform to some, but step backwards for others who question whether violations of campaign finance law will be aggressively policed and how citizens will know from where money flows to politicians.
GAB, which oversaw historically tumultuous recall elections and joined an investigation into the 2012 recall campaign of Walker, is set to be replaced with two separate ethics and elections boards. Lawmakers will have a bigger role in the agency charged with regulating them, with authority over the majority of the commissions’ appointees and its funding for investigations.
“This is really a branch that has a strong legislative imprint, which can raise some serious separations of powers questions,” said Kevin Kennedy, GAB’s outgoing director said in an interview. “This is really a big change. It’s bigger than the old model because of the legislative control and the very clear partisanship. How it’s going to play out, it’s going to be interesting to see.”
Kennedy, Wisconsin’s longest serving election official who is set to retire in two weeks, says he doesn’t regret the boards’ investigation into coordination between conservative groups and Walker’s recall campaign with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. He warned the state’s next iteration of lobbying and ethics regulation will remain contested, as past models have, because deliberations will not be public.