Political News

5 Elections staff approved despite Walker recommendation

Posted May 16

— The Legislature's budget committee on Tuesday approved state funding for five of six Elections Commission staff positions that have been supported by federal grant that's set to run out, dismissing Gov. Scott Walker's recommendation to cut all six of them.

The governor argued that the commission can handle its workload without the positions that had been supported by the federal Help America Vote Act passed in 2002. But state and local elections officials disagreed, arguing that the jobs were critically important to ensuring that Wisconsin's elections are properly run.

Republicans who control the Joint Finance Committee agreed to allocate about $304,000 in state money to fund five spots, but they rejected arguments from Democrats who said it was vital to keep all six.

"This isn't horseshoes. This isn't how close you can get," said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee. "Let's not pretend to be with them, let's be with them fully."

Committee co-chair, Republican Rep. John Nygren, said the commission can always return and ask for more staff later.

"We're committed to help them be successful," Nygren said of the commission the Republican-controlled Legislature created to replace the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board last year.

Democratic Rep. Gordon Hintz said Republicans were "nickel and diming" the commission by only approving five of the six positions, setting it up for failure.

"If election integrity is a good thing we should do the right thing and fund their request," Hintz said.

Elections Commission leaders said the jobs are needed to ensure the state remains in compliance with its core responsibilities under Wisconsin and federal election laws, including providing training and support to local election officials, maintaining and improving the voter registration system, educating the public and assisting candidates.

The $57 million Wisconsin received under the Help America Vote Act went toward helping municipalities buy new voting equipment, building the state's first statewide voter registration system and training local election clerks.

The money was used to pay for 26 positions, which was reduced to 22 in the current budget. Walker called for funding just 16 of those. The committee approved 21 positions, bringing the commission's full-time staff up to 31 spots.

Commission director Mike Haas said he appreciated funding for 21 of 22 positions and will evaluate whether to seek more money for the remaining position.

The committee also voted to reduce payments to members of the elections and ethics commissions for each day they meet, from $454 to $227. Walker had wanted to cut it to just $50 per meeting to correspond with what members of other state boards and commissions get. Republicans said they wanted a higher amount to attract quality people to serve as commissioners.

The budget committee is working on changes to the two-year $76 billion budget that Walker submitted in February. Its proposal has to pass both the Senate and Assembly, and be signed by Walker, before becoming law. The committee is expected to complete its work sometime in June.

The budget committee on Tuesday voted to:

— Change the process for determining where to place violent sexual offenders once they are released. Under the plan, offenders would be released to the county where they lived at the time they committed their crimes. Local communities would be given more of a say in where released offenders live, including proximity to schools, parks and churches. A judge would still have the final decision on placement. The proposal passed on a 13-3 vote, with Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland joining all Republicans in support.

— Increase funding by $6 million to provide out-of-home placements, services and treatments for children and young people who have been involved with sex trafficking. Current treatment capacity is not expected to be able to keep pace with demand under a new state law, taking effect May 29, that requires state child protective services agencies to investigate all child sex trafficking cases and provide services where needed.

— Reject a Walker proposal to create a refundable income tax credit for certain 18- to 21-year-olds who were previously in foster care but who aged out of the system once they hit 18. Nygren said the Legislature plans to create task forces to study foster care services in the state.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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