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Capitol Newsletter: Republicans tighten grip on state government
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Republicans have tightened their grip on Wisconsin government with new laws on elections and ethics while national attention has focused on selecting candidates for the upcoming presidential election.

The new Wisconsin laws increase campaign donation limits, allow candidates to coordinate activities with so-called interest advocacy groups, and replace nationally recognized regulatory control by retired judges with two new commissions dominated by politicians.

John Doe investigations into alleged political misdeeds are gone; financing of investigations is returned to the Legislature, campaign donors don't have to identify for whom they work, and the majority party is likely to decide the top staffers for the new election and ethics commissions.

All of the changes favor incumbents. They help Republicans because they now hold the governor's office and have large majorities in both houses of Legislature.

Republicans don't need the added advantages. Gerrymandering in 2011 created legislative districts that seem to guarantee the GOP will control the Legislature until at least the year 2020. Only 10 percent of the legislative districts are competitive, according to Common Cause.

In addition, nothing bad is going to happen to Republican politicians. The State Supreme Court is decidedly conservative. Four of its seven justices benefited from large right-wing campaign contributions. A fifth justice was appointed in autumn by Gov. Scott Walker.

Earlier the Republican-controlled government reduced hours for absentee voting and required photo IDs to be shown to participate in an election. This year will be the first time for the voting changes in a presidential general election. Critics say the changes will make it tougher for the poor, senior citizens and students to vote. That, too, should help Republicans when the ballots are counted on election night.

The last Republican to win Wisconsin's presidential electoral vote was Ronald Reagan. Republicans have lost several close presidential votes in Wisconsin since then, but the new election laws could end the string of Democratic victories in presidential elections in the state.

Two major issues continue to await action in the Legislature before it adjourns to start its electioneering. Republicans have strong allies in the anti-abortion movement. At issue in the Legislature are restrictions or banning the use of fetal tissue in medically-related research.

University of Wisconsin-Madison leaders say the legislation would hurt both medical research and the university's reputation among professors. The last state budget crafted by Republicans eliminated tenure protections for the faculty. Hundreds of millions of dollars also were cut from state support for the university. Procedures on dealing with faculty layoffs are now under consideration on UW System campuses across the state.

Another big Republican issue in the New Year is the drive to eliminate Wisconsin's century-old civil service system. Walker says it takes too long and is too difficult to fire workers. Republican legislative leaders say it takes too long to hire workers to fill vacancies. The governor also has pushed centralizing the process of hiring state workers in his Department of Administration.

Changes in employee relations have been a theme during the Walker administration. Public employee unions were gutted at the start of Walker's first term. Later, a right-to-work law was added for the private sector, banning mandatory dues payment in labor contracts.

Walker, who dropped out of college without an undergraduate degree, has bragged he has the equivalent of a master's degree in politics. He may be underestimating his abilities. A sweeping GOP victory in November could allow him to say his experiences are the equivalent of a Ph.D. degree.

- Matt Pommer is a 35-year veteran of covering state government in Madison. His column is published Tuesdays in the Times.