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WMC, others push recall reform

By   /   August 17, 2011  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — One of Wisconsin’s most powerful business voices has thrown its weight behind a campaign to rein in Wisconsin’s recall laws.

A day after an unprecedented summer of recall elections wrapped up, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, or WMC, endorsed the much-discussed idea of recall reform through an amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution.

For the industry advocate, no stranger to voicing its opinion on political matters, the issue comes down to economic development.

“As we all know, uncertainty and political instability are not good for job creation,” WMC said in a statement on its website. “That’s why WMC will be supporting recall reform in Wisconsin.”

The organization backs state Rep. Robin Vos’ proposal, first discussed last week, to amend the Constitution’s sections on recalls, tightening what Vos, R-District 63, and others consider to be loose thresholds for recalling state officials.

Recall for a reason

As it stands, there must be a reason for recalling local officeholders, such as county board members, and the motive must be related to the officeholder’s position, said Reid Magney, spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, or GAB, the state’s election agency.

“For example, saying the official isn’t representing the voters could be a valid reason. Saying he roots for the Bears is not,” Magney said.

But state officeholders, such as the nine state senators recalled this summer, can face the political firing line with no specified cause. Nothing in the statute or the constitution requires a reason for recall, just the requisite number of signatures on recall petition.

Recall, the process that sets up a fresh election, demands the signatures of district voters amounting to 25 percent of votes cast for governor in the previous gubernatorial election.

In the case of the nine senators in this summer’s recall election, the petition requirements ranged from a low of 13,537 signatures in the 22nd Senate District that recalled Democratic Sen. Bob Wirch to 20,343 to recall Republican Sen. Alberta Darling in the 8th Senate District.

Vos’ proposal, which he said he is finalizing into a bill to be introduced in the fall session, would limit cause for recall to egregious acts, criminal and ethical — felony charges or convictions, misdemeanor convictions, basic abridgement of the public trust.

Recall as way to change policy

Beyond that, the Burlington Republican who is chairman of the Assembly’s Finance Committee, said he does not want to see Wisconsin in a permanent campaign cycle, as an increasingly partisan state government turns to recall to change policy outcomes.

The six Republicans recalled Aug. 9, four of whom survived ousting, were targeted because of their votes on controversial issues like Gov. Scott Walker’s budget cuts and changes to collective bargaining that curtailed most collective bargaining for many public employees.

The three Democrats recalled — all returned to their seats by voters — were charged by Republicans with dereliction of duty for leaving the state with their fellow Democratic senators to stall a vote on the budget bill.

“Losing an election does not mean you count down days until you can recall somebody,” Vos said.

He said despising someone should not rise to the level of a recallable offense.

Changing the constitution

Article 13, Section 12(7) is clear about the durability of a recall provision added to Wisconsin’s Constitution via amendment 85 years ago. “This section shall be self-executing and mandatory. Laws may be enacted to facilitate its operation but no law shall be enacted to hamper, restrict or impair the right of recall,” according to the constitution.

That is to say, the people of Wisconsin would need to decide any change to the section.

“It has to be done constitutionally,” said WMC spokesman Jim Pugh. “In order to establish clean and quantifiable standards in which recalls can proceed, you have to change the Constitution.”

That’s not a cut-and-dry proposition.

“Only the people can amend the Constitution, either by convention or by voting on proposed amendments, passed by two different legislatures,” according to “Governing Wisconsin,” an online report by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau.

“Nobody is saying we should eliminate the recall provision of the constitution. The concern is if you have highly motivated special interest groups angry over a public policy dispute, you can now turn to recall to disrupt the legislative process,” Pugh said.

History of recall races

Despite this summer’s rash of recalls, the mechanism, historically speaking, has been rarely used in Wisconsin politics. Before this year, four state officials were recalled since 1926, two surviving elections, two not.

In all, a total of 30 political recalls occurred in Wisconsin, most of those at the local government level.

Vos said the recent spate could be a sign of things to come.

“About one-third of recalls in Wisconsin history occurred this year. I don’t think that’s something Wisconsin wants to be known for,” he said.