Editorial Round-Up: Maintaining Accountability in Wisconsin

Newspaper in Wisconsin rebuked the Assembly Speaker's call for eliminating a non-partisan government accountability board.
by | December 20, 2011

Last week, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald called for an overhaul of the state Government Accountability Board, created in 2007 to oversee Wisconsin campaign laws and composed of non-partisan former judges. According to the Associated Press, Fitzgerald, a Republican, alleged that the public had lost faith in the board to fairly handle recall elections, which have recently targeted Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP officials, and said he supports returning to the former system of two separate boards, a non-partisan ethics board and an election board with partisan appointees.

A trio of editorials from newspapers around the state have rebuffed Fitzgerald's proposal, all agreeing that the board's non-partisan structure is in the best interest of the public. The Appleton (Wis.) Post Crescent admonished Fitzgerald in its Dec. 19 editorial, noting that he voted for establishing the present board in 2007. The newspaper quoted a January 2007 press release in which Fitzgerald said the board would "lead the way to restoring confidence to the people of Wisconsin."

"So what changed? Primarily, that the GAB has made a few rulings recently that Fitzgerald and his fellow Republicans don't like," the Post Crescent argued, alluding to the state GOP's decision to sue the board over its process for reviewing recall petition signatures. "But there's also this. In 2007, control of the Legislature was split. Today, Fitzgerald's party has full control -- and the ability to take apart the GAB if it wants to, returning to a more partisan system that could help ensure its power."

"There's no way we want the state to return to the old system," the newspaper continued. Maybe it's best for the people in power. But it's not best for the public, which needs a strong board to make sure those who have power -- from either party, or no party -- don't abuse it."

The Beloit (Wis.) Daily News was less delicate with its word choices, saying that Fitzgerald's idea "is beyond idiotic" in its Dec. 19 editorial. The newspaper reminded readers that the accountability board was designed to explicitly remove partisan wrangling from its work, adding that it "has been touted as a national model" for its structure. Politicians certainly have a right to challenge the board's decisions, the Daily News wrote.

"But the speaker's disappointing call to abolish independence and restore partisanship is contemptible," the newspaper concluded. "At all levels, these days, government needs less partisanship and more independence. Politicians who fail to get that deserve to become ex-politicians at the voters' earliest opportunity."

In its Dec. 16 editorial, the Wisconsin State Journal noted a pattern in Fitzgerald's opposition to the accountability board: "He regularly and predictably grouses about calls made by" the board, the newspaper wrote, "unless, of course, the calls go his way." The State Journal argued that the board has made decisions that have upset both Democrats and Republicans in its short existence. "That's how it goes when tough calls have to be made," the editorial board said, admitting that the newspaper itself had occasionally disagreed with the board's rulings.

"It's bad enough that Wisconsin is being subjected to incessant recall elections. Now Fitzgerald wants to recall the referees who are sincerely and carefully trying to ensure fair play in Wisconsin's fierce game of politics," the newspaper wrote. His proposal is an idea that "the Legislature and the public should reject."

The issue of accountability also caught the attention of the Naples Daily News in Florida this week. There, the Associated Press reported that state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater wanted to review more of the state's contracts with private companies, a move that the AP said was bound to be "contentious" especially since these contracts were approved by Gov. Rick Scott. The newspaper argued that the independent local watchdogs in Collier and Lee counties have proved "how invaluable [watchdogs] can be to assure the public interest and trust are carried out," the Daily News wrote in its Dec. 20 editorial. "Usually, that means saving money." The newspaper pointed to two recent examples of contract reviews of proposed developments resulting in money saved for the localities.

"As for the potential friction with the governor, elected officials of good will can always find ways to make things work more efficiently," the Daily News concluded.


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