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Wisconsin Assembly passes bills eliminating elections board, overhauling campaign finance law


MADISON, Wisconsin — The state Assembly gave final approval Monday to a pair of Republican-backed bills that would significantly alter the flow of money into Wisconsin political campaigns and dramatically change oversight of elections, campaign finance and ethics laws.

The proposals, which the GOP-controlled Assembly passed with no Democratic support, now go to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. Walker has voiced general support for the proposals and was expected to sign them into law.

Democrats and government watchdog groups who argue that the bills and one already signed into law that did away with secret investigations into political misconduct will make it easier for politicians to break the law.

One bill passed Monday would replace Wisconsin's unique nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which is comprised of retired judges and oversees elections and ethics laws, with two separate panels consisting of partisan appointees.

The commission overseeing ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws would have two retired judges in addition to four partisan appointees. Democrats objected to a provision giving a Republican-controlled committee the power to name administrators for each commission if there is a stalemate on who to hire.

Republican backers say the current board, which was created with nearly unanimous legislative support in 2007, has been nonpartisan in name only and they point to critical audits as justification for reorganizing it.

Rep. Dean Knudson, the Republican sponsor of the bill, called the current board a "colossal failure" that was "a stain on Wisconsin's reputation for clean and open government."

"No state is going to follow this model," Knudson said of what they were replacing. "Never."

The move to do away with the board came after it authorized a secret John Doe investigation into Walker and conservative groups related to the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in July ended the probe, saying the coordination being investigated was legal.

Republican Reps. Todd Novak of Dodgeville, Warren Petryk of Eleva, and Travis Tranel of Cuba City joined all Democrats in voting against it.

The other bill sent to Walker on Monday would change state law to reflect that ruling, making clear that candidates can coordinate political activity with shadowy issue advocacy groups that don't have to disclose their donors.

It would also double allowable individual campaign contribution limits from $10,000 to $20,000 for statewide campaigns, do away with a requirement that donors giving more than $100 to campaigns disclose who they work for, and allow corporate donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees for the first time.

While Democrats bemoaned the changes as making it more difficult for the public to know who is donating to political campaigns, Republicans said their goal was to protect free-speech rights of donors and react to state and federal court rulings striking down portions of the current law.

The bill passed on a 59-0 vote, with Democrats not voting. They had recused themselves from the debate previously, saying they had a conflict of interest and could not participate because they stood to gain financially.

At a news conference prior to the debate beginning, Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said the public wanted the Legislature to focus on creating jobs and addressing infrastructure needs, not making it easier for more money to flow into political campaigns.

"We believe this will lead to further corruption in Wisconsin," Barca said. "It's a sad day in Wisconsin. The era of clean, open, transparent government is over."

Both bills had previously passed the Assembly. But the Senate made changes on Nov. 6, so the Assembly needed to vote on the measures again Monday.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the governor would review both bills now that they're passed, but he supports replacing the Government Accountability Board with something "fair, transparent, and accountable to Wisconsinites." She did not offer comment on the campaign finance bill, which Walker was also expected to sign.

Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer .

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