A series of bills that would alter the state’s campaign finance and election systems caused a heated public hearing Tuesday, with lawmakers divided over the decision to make the state’s election board a partisan organization.
The controversy centered around three bills announced last week to reform the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which oversees and administers elections in Wisconsin, and replace it with two commissions equally comprised of Democrats and Republicans.
Proponents of the measure say it would reform a troubled agency that allegedly targeted conservative groups for closer scrutiny following a series of recall elections in 2011.
GAB Director Kevin Kennedy defended his agency Tuesday, telling the Senate and Assembly election committees that the proposals were “bad policy” and calling questioning from one Republican lawmaker “out of the McCarthy era.”
“The Government Accountability Board is indeed an experiment–a successful one that has served the people of Wisconsin well,” Kennedy said in his testimony. “The proof is that under the board’s stewardship, Wisconsin is consistently recognized for the high quality and professionalism of its elections.”
Tension escalated when state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, asked Kennedy about his friendship with former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused in 2013 of targeting tea party activist groups for closer scrutiny.
"Seriously?" Kennedy said. "Have you no decency? That is like right out of the McCarthy era to ask that."
Kennedy added he has known Lerner since the two served at the Federal Elections Commission but argued the question had no relevance to the matter at hand.
Other lawmakers called the GAB a “failure” and said the bills would create opportunities for reform.
“It was naïve to think that you could have a nonpartisan board," bill co-author state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, said in her testimony.
Democratic leaders, however, say the bill would ruin a successful agency.
“These bills take us in the exact wrong direction–turning our nationally-respected watchdogs into partisan lapdogs and allowing corporations to have even more influence over Wisconsin,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement.