By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin lawmakers are expected to take a step on Thursday to limit recalls of elected state officials to cases of serious crimes or ethics violations, following challenges that targeted the governor and several senators in recent years.
Opponents of Governor Scott Walker launched massive protests at the Capitol in Madison in 2011 and later sought to recall the first-term Republican after he pressed legislation to limit the powers of some public sector unions.
Republicans took majorities in both sides of the Wisconsin legislature and the governor's office in 2010 and Democrats and labor groups targeted several Republican state senators for recall elections to try to return the Senate to Democrats.
Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election in 2012 when he defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, in what amounted to a do-over of their 2010 election. Two other governors, including California's Gray Davis, were ousted from office through recall.
Under Wisconsin's Constitution, an elected state official can be forced into a special election for any reason if a petitioner gathers enough signatures within a 60-day period and the official has served at least a year in office.
Republicans want to tighten that requirement, but the proposal must first be approved twice by the legislature and then by voters in a statewide referendum.
"Recalls for virtually no reason whatsoever inhibits the spirit of why we have the system that we have," said Republican Representative David Craig during a meeting of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections last month.
Wisconsin's state representatives are expected to consider the amendment proposal on Thursday in what would be the first of two rounds through the legislature.
"I think in a democracy, we ought to be accountable for what we do, so therefore I think that preserving the citizen's right to recall is absolutely important," Representative Fred Kessler, a Democrat, said during the committee meeting.
Under the proposed amendment, elected state officials could be recalled only if they have been charged with a crime punishable by at least one year in prison or if there is probable cause that they have violated the state's code of ethics.
A similar measure that would require malfeasance in office for an elected local official to be recalled also is working its way through the legislature. That measure only requires approval of lawmakers and the governor.
Eighteen states allow recalls of elected state officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, eight states require grounds for elected officials to be recalled.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by David Bailey and Ken Wills)