Targeting Wisconsin’s Clean Government Laws
By State Senator Julie Lassa
Now that Governor Walker’s presidential campaign has ended, many people are speculating about what he will do next. In an editorial, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel advised him that one of his first moves should be to “restrain the worst impulses” of his political party, which continues to control Wisconsin’s Executive Branch and the Legislature.
“That raw power, which Walker has been unwilling to check in the past, is now manifest in bills to gut the state's elections watchdog — the Government Accountability Board — and to revamp the John Doe investigatory process,” the Journal Sentinel wrote. “And the hubris that typically accompanies one-party rule also was evident in the secret attack on the state open records law.”
Unfortunately, if the Governor read the editorial, he's not heeding its warnings. Instead, the Governor’s first move was to announce an attack on civil service employment laws that ensure that state employees are actually qualified for their jobs and can’t be hired or fired based on political purposes. These laws were enacted a century ago to stop elected officials from using state jobs to reward their political cronies. Many people of that era recognized that this practice was the principal cause of government corruption. So why do Governor Walker and the Republicans want to bring back the bad old days?
I can’t help seeing the same pattern that the Journal Sentinel has identified. First came the attempt by legislative Republicans to gut Wisconsin's Open Records Law, which would have made it much easier for elected officials to hide their activities from their constituents and the media. This provision was tucked into a massive budget motion on the final day of Joint Finance Committee action the Friday before the July 4th holiday. Public outrage over the provision shamed Republican leaders into retracting it; however, they weren't done. The media was able to use the Open Records Law to discover that Republicans had not abandoned their effort to gut the law, but quietly started drafting a new proposal after the furor died down.
Republican legislators have also suggested doing away with the independent Government Accountability Board, the non-partisan group of retired judges in charge of enforcing our government ethics and campaign laws. These legislators want to go back to the days when "enforcement" of these laws were the responsibility of party hacks – a group that was infamous for its ineffectiveness.
As if all that weren’t enough, Republicans also want to curtail the ability of prosecutors to launch covert probes into possible political corruption. Publicly, they complain that the “John Doe” statutes are too broad and give prosecutors too much power. But the bill they introduced is written so that only the political class is exempt from John Doe investigations while average citizens are still subject to them. A judge in my district who has a lot of experience with John Doe probes wrote to tell me that the bill would “cause a mess if implemented,” and called it “an obvious attempt to eliminate potential misconduct in public office and campaign related offenses from consideration.”
The pattern is clear with "one-party rule" in Wisconsin government. It seems the Governor and the Republican majority in the Legislature don't want to "restrain the worst impulses" of their political party but prefer to wield their "raw power" without limits. They are intent on blinding the public and independent watchdogs by overturning the very laws that were put in place to combat past corruption and cronyism in Wisconsin. I am hopeful that public vigilance and outcry will let the Governor and Republicans know that their constituents oppose these blatant attacks on Wisconsin’s tradition of clean, open and accountable government. Let your voice be heard.