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GAB door for WSJ editorial (copy)
JOHN HART — State Journal archives

Despite the Republicans' ongoing criticism of the state ethics and elections board, the agency has avoided an audit, at least for now.

“We were told (Friday) they had other priorities,” said Reid Magney, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, the nonpartisan state agency that oversees elections and campaign ethics laws.

Earlier last week, Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Powers Lake, the Republican co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, had announced that a hearing would be held this Wednesday followed by a committee vote to decide if the state should audit the GAB.

But on Monday committee members were told the meeting was off. Cowles and Kerkman did not return phone calls seeking an explanation.

Perhaps the cancellation (or postponement) has something to do with a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report released Friday that revealed the University of Wisconsin System had cash reserves of roughly $650 million, which set off a frenzy of UW bashing by the GOP and calls for an investigation of system finances.

However, no reason for the GAB-related meeting cancellation was given when his office was notified Monday morning, said committee member, Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee.

“The whole thing (idea of an audit) smells like the ongoing Republican witch hunt against the GAB because a few rulings didn’t go their way,” Richards said Monday.

The call for a GAB audit came in January from committee members Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, and Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls.

“Fair elections are the backbone of democracy. This audit is designed to improve the electoral process in this state and promote confidence in election outcomes,” wrote Lazich and Bernier in a Jan. 24 letter to Cowles and Kerkman.

Wisconsin has had an overactive election schedule ever since Gov. Scott Walker took office in January 2011. Budget provisions he and Republicans enacted that spring that curbed the collective bargaining rights of most public unions and made record cuts to public education, prompted an unprecedented round of recall elections, including one against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and 13 state senators from both parties.

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The Government Accountability Board has been front and center through it all, reviewing recall petitions and setting election dates. Decisions by GAB staff and board members, often based on interpretations of state law regarding election matters, were frequently criticized as politically motivated by both parties, although more consistently so by Republicans.

Before the January start of the current legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald made news by calling for the GAB’s board members to be picked by lawmakers, rather than a committee of judges that sends recommendations to the governor, saying lawmakers would choose a more nonpartisan board. That effort has gone nowhere since the session began.

Should the Joint Legislative Audit Committee revive the idea of a GAB audit, agency director Kevin Kennedy would welcome it.

“Whenever it occurs, we look forward to a full agency audit, which is an indispensable tool for us to gauge performance and improve operations,”  Kennedy said in an email. “While audits are essential for legislative oversight and public transparency, they also help educate legislators and the public about an agency’s mission, its challenges and its resource needs.”