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Scott Walker GAB signing

Gov. Scott Walker speaks last month at the state Capitol in Madison.

Gov. Scott Walker has cemented key changes in time for the 2016 political campaign, signing into law bills giving campaign finance law its biggest makeover in decades and dismantling and replacing Wisconsin’s oversight board for elections and elected officials.

Walker’s signing of the two bills, announced in a press release, was conducted in private Wednesday. It was widely expected after the bills passed the Legislature last month on votes that largely mirrored party lines.

The campaign finance measure dials back restrictions on money flowing into state political campaigns, some of which had been struck down by court rulings.

The signing of the measure dismantling the Government Accountability Board kicks off a six-month transition to new elections and ethics commissions that will succeed it on June 30.

The GAB, made up of six nonpartisan former judges, oversees elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying. The bill replaces it with two separate elections and ethics commissions overseen by appointees, most of them partisans, made by legislative leaders and the governor.

The lead lawmakers in the majority and minority parties in the Assembly and Senate each will appoint a member to both commissions. The elections commission will include two former local elections clerks — and the ethics commission, two former judges — that are appointed by the governor.

The measure also resumes the practice, halted when the GAB was created in 2007, of allowing lawmakers to control funding for investigations of alleged wrongdoing by public officials.

The chief administrator of the GAB, Kevin Kennedy, said in a statement that his agency will work with the Walker administration to ensure a smooth transition to the new commissions.

“There are still many questions about how the transition will happen, which we hope to answer in coming weeks,” Kennedy said.

Those questions relate to the budgets of the new commissions, how and when their chief administrators will be hired and where they’ll be housed, GAB spokesman Reid Magney said.

In a memo to Walker released last month, Kennedy joined GAB members in objecting to putting the new commissions in place in mid-2016, calling it “irresponsible, if not reckless.”

The new elections commission would begin functioning five months before a high-turnout presidential election in November 2016. It’s expected to be the first presidential election in which the state’s new photo ID requirement for voters will be in effect.

The GAB, the establishment of which was inspired by the partisan caucus scandals that rocked the Wisconsin Legislature in the early 2000s, was meant to be an impartial overseer of campaigns, elections, public officials and those who seek to influence them. Outside experts hailed the board as a national model, in part because it is led by former judges instead of the partisans who fill that role in most other states.

But in recent years, the GAB and Kennedy fell out of favor with many Wisconsin Republicans for their role in the investigation into secret coordination between Walker’s 2012 recall campaign and several so-called “issue advocacy” organizations. The board’s growing list of critics described the GAB as a rogue agency and accused it of partisan bias after it assisted prosecutors in the John Doe investigation. The state Supreme Court halted the probe in July, saying it had no basis in law.

Republican supporters of the bill to dismantle the GAB say it will restore confidence in the oversight of elections and elected officials.

Bill critics, which include Democrats and open-government groups, say it could foster corruption by weakening such oversight. They objected to recent changes to the bill by the state Senate, where the measure stalled for a period before passing last month.

A key Senate change empowers a legislative committee controlled by majority Republicans with appointing head administrators for the new commissions if commissioners don’t pick them within 45 days.

Since the commissions are designed to be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, critics said the change would create an incentive for commissioners aligned with the majority party to stall on voting for an administrator, thus empowering their party to make the selection.

Democrats said that change undermines the stated intent of bill supporters who said the new commissions won’t favor one party or another.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, was one of two entities registered with the state to lobby in favor of the bill.

The group hailed Walker’s signature in a statement Wednesday, saying the GAB “worked in secret to launch partisan assaults on protected free speech and its own political enemies.”

“It’s my hope that the new bipartisan agency will protect the rights of Wisconsinites instead of trampling them,” said the group’s Wisconsin director, Eric Bott.

The campaign finance measure removes various limits on campaign contributions, some of which recently have not been in effect after being struck down in court. It lifts the ban on corporate contributions to political parties and legislative campaign committees and doubles individual contribution limits to candidates.

It makes clear that candidates may coordinate with issue advocacy groups, the type of activity that was at the center of the investigation into Walker’s campaign. Such groups seek to influence elections but don’t expressly call for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.

Common Cause in Wisconsin, the nonpartisan government watchdog group that opposed both bills, issued a statement saying the campaign finance bill will allow much more money to flow to political campaigns in secret.

“No other state allows for as many opportunities for political money to escape simple, basic disclosure as this legislation will allow in Wisconsin,” the statement said.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.