By Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)
MADISON, Wis. — Republican Gov. Scott Walker privately signed a measure Wednesday loosening the state’s campaign finance laws and eliminating the state elections and ethics agency that investigated his campaign for teaming up with conservative groups.
The state Supreme Court ended the probe into the GOP governor’s campaign this summer and found candidates and issue groups can work closely together. That ruling and others in federal court prompted Republicans who control the Legislature to overhaul campaign finance laws and how they are enforced.
One of the measures Walker signed will dissolve the Government Accountability Board and hand its duties over on July 1 to two new agencies — the Elections Commission and the Ethics Commission.
The accountability board, made up of six former judges, was formed in 2008 after lawmakers from both parties overwhelmingly voted to beef up enforcement of campaign finance and ethics laws by putting their oversight under the control of one agency. That move followed a scandal in which lawmakers were caught doing campaign work using state resources.
Walker, who did not hold a press event to sign the legislation, used his partial veto powers to tweak the measure. As written, the legislation would have required lawmakers from each party to provide him with a list of up to three former judges and up to three former clerks to appoint to the commissions.
The governor modified that to require them to provide him with three nominees for each category, rather than up to three, giving him more options.
In his veto message, Walker wrote that the new law as a whole will “ensure transparency and accountability of the oversight of elections, ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws for the people of the state of Wisconsin.”
GAB director Kevin Kennedy, who opposed the legislation, said in a statement that his agency would work to ensure a smooth transition now that it has passed.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said that the legislation showed Republicans’ misplaced priorities.
“Republicans neglect our faltering economy in order to wage an all-out assault on Wisconsin’s proud heritage of clean, open and transparent government,” Barca said in a statement.
Under the GAB overhaul, the new Ethics Commission will consist of six members, including two former judges. Democrats and Republicans will each appoint three members to the commission, which will oversee ethics laws for public officials, lobbying regulations and campaign finance matters.
The Elections Commission will help local clerks run elections and will be split 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans. It will include two former municipal or county clerks, one chosen by each side.
The campaign finance measure doubles the amount donors can give candidates; allows corporations and unions to give money to political parties and campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders; and ends the requirement that donors disclose their employers. That would make it harder for the public to find out which industries are funneling money to candidates.
Walker’s campaign had been investigated by the accountability board and prosecutors for working with the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups in recall elections. The state Supreme Court in a 4-2 ruling in July shut down the probe and said issue groups and candidates can work together.
The probe prompted GOP lawmakers to pass legislation in October ending the use of a John Doe to investigate misconduct in office and other political crimes.
The campaign finance measure Walker signed Wednesday would also:
—Double the amount donors can give candidates, raising it for the first time since the 1970s. That will allow donors to give $1,000 to candidates for Assembly, $2,000 to candidates for Senate and $20,000 to candidates for governor and other statewide offices.
—Allow corporations, tribes and unions to give up to $12,000 a year to political parties and campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders.
—Permit individual donors to give as much as they wanted to those entities, which could then pass them on to candidates. That will allow them to get around the contribution limits that apply to candidates.
—Put into state law the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that says candidates can work closely with groups that don’t expressly call for their election or defeat. Collaboration between candidates and express advocacy groups — that is, those that use phrases such as “vote for” and “vote against” — will still be banned in a limited set of cases.
Prohibited coordination will be limited to instances such as when candidates specifically request certain expenditures and the groups explicitly agree to make them. Critics say that provision limits the law even more than the court’s decision requires.
—End the requirement that donors disclose where they work.
©2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Scott Walker bows his head in prayer at a campaign stop in Haverhill, Iowa, July 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young