After serving on Wisconsin’s nonpartisan elections board for 6½ years, retired judge Thomas Barland of Eau Claire was succinct and direct in summing up his disappointment with the state Senate’s vote early Saturday morning to abolish the panel. “It’s a great step backwards,” Barland said Monday. Barland, who served as a Republican Assembly representative for six years before a 33-year career as an Eau Claire County judge, called the effort by the Republican-controlled Legislature to dismantle the state’s Government Accountability Board politically motivated and warned that going back to a partisan elections board could result in a return to a stalemate situation in which nothing gets done. “It opens the door to corruption in the future, potentially by both parties,” he said of the measure that passed around 2:30 a.m. on an 18-14 party line vote. “It’s hurtful to good government.”
However, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, offered a completely different take. “Today the Wisconsin Senate took another step in ending a dark period in our state’s history,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “For the past several years, the GAB has been anything but accountable, repeatedly crossing lines and trampling over the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens in an effort to carry out their own partisan agendas.”
Fitzgerald called the GAB a “failed experiment” and said the agency’s structure allowed the staff to “go rogue” by acting without authorization from its board and often outside of state law. The GAB has drawn the ire of Republicans for its role in investigations into GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign activity.
Barland took issue with characterizations of the GAB by GOP lawmakers and said it has been difficult to stand by and listen to many of the false and distorted comments used to justify the dismantling of the agency. “We have been subject to a political lynching,” Barland said, noting that the GAB had implemented nearly all of the recommendations made last December in an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau.