Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board died Thursday.
It was 8 years old.
Its parents were Wisconsin legislators who sought an independent agency in the wake of the caucus scandal of 2001-2002 (only two voted no). Five state legislators – both Democrats and Republicans – were convicted in the caucus scandal, which involved using public office for political campaigning.
The GAB’s life was ended by the Wisconsin Legislature, whose Republican majority became convinced the agency had overstepped its authority and was no longer impartial.
Critics called it a failed experiment. But Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, told the critics: “The only thing that failed was that they (the GAB) didn’t do what you wanted them to do and they weren’t supposed to do what you wanted them to do.”
Also passing with the GAB Thursday were the roles of GAB director Kevin Kennedy, who has helped oversee Wisconsin elections for 37 years, and a six-member panel of retired judges — appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate — that provided oversight to the GAB.
The Government Accountability Board was preceded in death by the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board, both creatures of political appointment. The GAB was created to replace those entities as an independent board charged with overseeing elections and enforcing campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws.
The GAB will be survived by two commissions – one to oversee elections, the other ethics – that will be administered on a politically partisan basis, instead of being independent.
Yes, the new structure is much like the structure that existed during the caucus scandal — the one that the GAB replaced.
When it died Thursday, the GAB was the only nonpartisan oversight and elections board in the United States, and was hailed by supporters as a national model for clean government. It won consistent praise from local county clerks of both parties for helping them run fair elections.
There will be no memorial services to mark the sad occasion of Wisconsin returning to a partisan model that has a history of failure.
In lieu of flowers, remember Kennedy’s words on the GAB’s tombstone: “Follow the law. Put aside partisan interests.”