MADISON — The Wisconsin Assembly’s elections committee voted Wednesday to pass a constitutional amendment and bill that would prohibit voters from recalling state and local officeholders unless they’ve been charged with a felony or an ethics violation.
Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall effort in 2012 that was sparked by public anger over his proposal — passed by the Republican Legislature — that effectively ended collective bargaining for public workers.
State law currently doesn’t require voters to supply a reason for a recall. Both measures Wednesday passed on a 6-3 vote, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against.
Democrats said the ability to recall people from office should not be restricted.
“I believe recall is a right in a democracy,” said Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee. “If you’re not happy with your representative, you ought to be able to recall them. ... I may not like the reason that somebody’s being recalled, but I’m just really troubled placing limits on the rights of citizens.”
Republican backers of the proposed amendments said the flood of recalls in 2011 and 2012 showed the need for change and that officeholders shouldn’t be worried that they could be recalled over every vote.
A dozen Republican office holders, including Walker, stood for recall in 2011 and 2012. Three Democratic state senators also faced recall elections. Three Republican incumbent state senators were defeated in the recalls, briefly handing Democrats majority control of the Senate at the end of 2012 — which they lost following that year’s elections.
Wisconsin is one of 18 states that allows for recalls of state elected officials. Of those, only seven limit the reasons for recall to malfeasance in office. Those are Georgia, Montana, Rhode Island, Washington, Minnesota, Kansas and Alaska. A 19th state, Illinois, allows only for the recall of a governor.
The proposed constitutional amendment would affect the governor, judges, members of Congress, other state office holders and those who hold county-wide office. It is a long way from taking effect. It must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum before it would become law.
A similar amendment passed the Assembly last year, before Walker won the recall election, but died in the Senate. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he expected the Assembly to take it up again in November.
A spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who also survived a recall in 2012, had no comment on the measure. Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who won a 2011 recall, is co-sponsoring the amendment in the Senate.
The bill passed by the committee would change the process for local officials, like members of city, village or town councils and school boards. Under current law, anyone seeking a recall must indicate a reason for the recall that is related to the officers’ responsibilities. The bill would only allow recalls against someone who’s been charged with a crime or violating a code of ethics applicable to local officials.
The amendment would also require the Legislature to establish a code of ethics for government officials and a board to administer the code.