In an effort to strengthen the state’s abysmal record in enforcing election law, the Legislature last year implemented a new board to review campaign activities. The new Government Accountability Board was set up to enforce elections laws and to handle campaign finance reports.

Yet since the new board was implemented, the GAB has seemingly had trouble with the very laws it was intended to enforce. Just this week, the Board had to remove two members who violated the State Constitution by serving on the Board before their terms as judges had expired (even though they had resigned their positions.) In their press release, the GAB called this constitutional provision “obscure,” as if the Wisconsin Constitution were somehow hard to track down. Fortunately, the state’s Attorney General was able to find his copy under his couch cushions and point out this violation to the Board.

In one of their first actions, the Board announced their intention to regulate campaign advertisements for upcoming elections. Apparently, they believe a board of political appointees should be the ones serving as the speech police for Wisconsin campaigns. Yet nothing in the Wisconsin statutes gives them the ability to regulate the timing and content of political speech. When Legislators passed the law instituting the Board, they thought they were authorizing these unelected bureaucrats to enforce existing laws, not to make new ones up out of thin air. This would be like going to the doctor for an ear infection and ending up with a vasectomy.

Of course, courts continue to rule that the suppression of issue advocacy during elections is a violation of another obscure constitutional provision, known mostly to scholars as “The First Amendment.” Then again, why would the GAB start worrying about our founding documents now?

As their denouement, it appears the GAB is now going to move to suppress free speech before three of their members are even confirmed by the State Senate (as is seemingly required by the law). Three of the members have been confirmed by the Assembly. The Board knows that their appointees would have a difficult time mustering the 2/3rds vote necessary for Senate confirmation if their stated purpose was to regulate campaign speech. So some members may try to serve on the Board and vote to regulate issue ads before the 2009 session begins, when they will require confirmation. It appears they are going to serve almost as if they as “recess” appointments, since the Senate is not currently in session.

As a result of the GAB’s actions, Wisconsin will have an unelected, unconfirmed group of bureaucrats who will be putting themselves in charge of political speech for all upcoming state elections, in violation of their statutory authority. If you think the weeds taking over your front lawn this spring are a problem, that pesky clover has nothing on the Government Accountability Board. Someone needs to get the sprayer out and rein in this out of control board, before it chokes off meaningful political discourse.

-April 11, 2008

NOTE: This commentary initially did not mention the fact that three board members had already been approved by the Assembly. That fact has been added for clarity.