Madison: Politicians from both parties were all smiles Thursday as they congratulated each other on reaching an agreement on ethics reform. "I am really looking forward to signing this bill into law," says Gov. Jim Doyle.
The reform package will merge the Ethics Board and the Elections Board. "Under this agreement we will create a single strong independent and completely non-partisan Government Accountability Board," says Doyle.
The GAB will be made up of 6 retired judges who will listen to ethics complaints about elected officials and then decide if they should pursue criminal or civil charges.
In 2002, when 5 lawmakers were charged with misconduct in office during the caucus scandal it was up to the local District Attorney to press charges.
Under this bill the GAB could ask the DA to prosecute, and if they said no the GAB could find someone else to press charges.
A similar bill failed in the Assembly last session when Republican leaders would not allow it to come to a vote. Incoming Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) says he can support this plan. "We simply stepped back and recognized you needed to have a non-partisan board. We needed to have them be independent and have the ability to have the dollars and access and authority to investigate whereever they need to investigate."
The exact language has not been drafted and it still needs to go through hearings and be approved by the full legislature, but both sides say they can avoid petty squabbles which could derail the bill.
"This is more than just concepts. We have talked through a lot of the details of this," says Doyle.
"It is my intention to try and pass this in the form that we've developed it," says Huebsch.
Governor Doyle says he will call a special session in January to make sure this gets passed quickly.
Government watchdog groups were pleased.
"This is just an incredibly encouraging development," says Mike McCabe, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "Not only that they're willing to sit down and hammer out an agreement, but they're willing to commit to a special session in January. In past sessions there were ideas thrown around there were proposals put on the table, but there was never a willingness to say here's when we're going to get it done."
"The devil is in the details," says Jay Heck of Common Cause. "We'll want to see how it all works. I think it's an incredibly positive sign. If you'dve asked me three months ago whether I'd envisioned this happening this soon I would've said no."
Both Heck and McCabe say once this ethics reform package is passed they hope the legislature will start working on campaign finance reform.