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Consensus or stalemate? Election, ethics commissions prepare to act

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The membership of Wisconsin’s new ethics and elections commissions are now set, though key questions remain unanswered three weeks before they become operational.

How those questions are resolved could foreshadow whether the partisans who make up the new bodies can work together as the groups’ creators predicted — or are hamstrung by partisanship and political gamesmanship, as critics warned.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers created the two-party commissions in December to replace the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, over objections from Democrats.

The GAB was created in 2007 in the wake of the 2001 legislative caucus scandal in which lawmakers from both parties were convicted of using taxpayer resources to campaign. But the agency came under fire from Republicans for its role in assisting prosecutors looking into coordination between Walker’s 2012 recall campaign and ostensibly independent political groups.

On Thursday, Walker announced he was appointing former state senator and retired Waukesha County Judge Mac Davis, a Republican, and State Reserve Judge Robert Kinney, a Democrat, as the final two members of the ethics commission.

All 12 members of the ethics and elections commissions have now been appointed.

The ethics commission is still searching for a chief administrator to run its day-to-day operations. The panel met Thursday to review 23 applications for the position.

The hiring will be closely scrutinized. The ethics administrator will be state government’s chief watchdog of elected officials, political parties, campaign groups and lobbyists, overseeing laws governing campaign finance, ethics and lobbying.

The elections commission named its lead administrator, Michael Haas, last month. Haas currently oversees elections for the accountability board.

Haas’ hiring got a mixed reception from GOP state senators — some of whom object to his ties to the GAB, according to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

The Senate has the power to confirm or reject administrators for the commissions, and it may not vote to confirm Haas, according to Fitzgerald.

Pressure is on

The election commission has little time to get its bearings. It must oversee elections and implementation of the state’s controversial voter ID requirement during a high-turnout presidential election cycle, starting with the state primary election on Aug. 9.

It was that urgency, said election commissioner Steve King — a Republican appointee of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — that contributed to the swift hiring of Haas.

“We didn’t want to be accused of letting this cycle go by without any real leadership,” King said.

But King said he doesn’t foresee a status-quo transition from the GAB to the elections commission. He said he expects commissioners to take a “a more proactive approach” than did members of the GAB.

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last month that some Republican senators have concerns with the Haas pick because of his role with the GAB — and the board’s role in the John Doe probe into Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, which was halted by the state Supreme Court last year.

But King, also a member of the Republican National Committee, rejected that rationale in an interview this week, saying Haas’ involvement with the Doe probe was “pretty minimal.”

Haas has a background in partisan politics, having run for state Assembly as a Democrat in 1992 and 1994.

King and election commissioner Don Millis, Fitzgerald’s appointee, said that doesn’t worry them. Both said they have known Haas for years, and their interactions made them comfortable with him administering the commission.

“I always found him to be a gentleman,” King said of Haas. “I found him to be fair.”

Said Millis: “My personal experience with Mike was always, he was a stand-up guy.”

King and Millis said they expect to review Haas’ performance after the November election. A Senate confirmation vote won’t happen until sometime in 2017.

Haas or any other administrator selected by either commission may serve on an interim basis until a confirmation vote is held.

Some GOP lawmakers said they had no objection to Haas’ hiring.

Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, the Assembly sponsor of the bill creating the commissions, praised the pick. Vos said “I’m not going to second-guess” the commissioners for hiring him.

Consensus or stalemate?

Finding an administrator for the ethics commission could be more complicated than for its elections counterpart, which had an heir apparent in Haas.

The former chief official overseeing ethics for the GAB, Jonathan Becker, retired last month.

Ethics commissioner Katie McCallum, Fitzgerald’s appointee, said commissioners will interview top candidates for the ethics administrator position in the coming weeks.

The election and ethics commissions are equally divided between Democratic and Republican appointees, unless a third-party candidate gains enough of the vote in an election for that party to earn a seat.

But a provision in the law creating the commissions could enable a partisan group of lawmakers to pick their administrators if the commissioners can’t agree on whom to hire.

With the ethics post still unfilled, that’s a “huge concern” said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan government accountability group that opposed the creation of the new bipartisan commissions.

If the commissions cannot agree on an administrator, the law requires that the decision instead fall to a partisan legislative committee, the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, which is controlled by the party that holds a legislative majority.

Ethics commissioner David Halbrooks, Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca’s pick, said he’s impressed with the makeup of the commission.

Halbrooks added that he hopes that bodes well for how it will function.

“We will either act by consensus,” Halbrooks said, “or we will act by stalemate.”

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