Thursday, October 30, 2014

Walker To Out-of-State Interests: Keep Your Celebrities, But Send Money. . . To Me

"I don't need people from outside of this state.  This is about me and the people of the state of Wisconsin."  comments by Governor Scott Walker reported by during a campaign stop in Pewaukee this week.

Walker's comments referred to recent visits by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton on behalf of his opponent, Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke, in next Tuesday's elections.

But if that's how the governor feels about outside influence in Wisconsin elections then maybe he should return the $13 million in individual campaign contributions he has accepted from outside Wisconsin since January 2013 to run his reelection campaign.  These outside contributions are responsible for about 52 percent of his total $25.1 million in identifiable individual contributions he accepted from 2013 through October 20, 2014, according to a Democracy Campaign analysis.

And Walker's out-of-state haul in direct contributions doesn't count the millions of dollars in out-of-state influence being spent to support him by electioneering groups led by the Washington D.C.-based Republican Governors Association which he has encouraged and thanked for its help.  The association's 527 group has raised tens of millions of dollars from wealthy individuals, multi-national corporations and trade groups across the country to help Walker and other Republican governors and candidates win elections.

As for Burke, the Democratic candidate raised $2.8 million or 31 percent of her total $9 million in identifiable individual campaign contributions from outside Wisconsin, according to a review of campaign finance reports she has filed since she entered the race in October 2013.

Like Walker, Burke has benefited from millions of dollars in outside electioneering spending chiefly led by the Greater Wisconsin Committee through its issue ad and 527 groups and a political action committee fueled by numerous state and national labor unions and Democratic ideological organizations that get millions of dollars in contributions from wealthy business interests.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transportation Amendment Was Birthed And Nurtured By Special Interests

With few exceptions the news reports and editorials about the proposed constitutional amendment voters are being asked to approve on next Tuesday's ballot don't get into where it came from and why it got there.

The measure is a special interest-backed plan to amend the Wisconsin Constitution to prevent elected officials from being able to use the state transportation fund to pay other bills in the future like they did during the Doyle administration. At first whiff, the proposed amendment seems like a good idea given the growing short- and long-term shortfall the fund faces to pay for the state's wish list of major highway projects.

But the amendment isn't a solution to the transportation fund's cash shortage because it doesn't cut highway spending or raise more cash to pay for projects.  The concrete protection the proposed amendment grants the fund isn't afforded other important pots of money used for health care, education, the environment, poverty and other programs.  Perhaps more critically, the amendment will tie the hands of public officials from ever using money from the fund for non-transportation purposes under any circumstances, even an economic emergency or widespread public health or safety crisis.

The proposal is before voters because a group of wealthy special interests contributed nearly one-third  $5.5 million  of the $18.3 million large individual and political action committee contributions accepted by the current legislature, which gave it final approval between 2011 and July 2014.

Those interests include manufacturing, business, construction, tourism, agriculture, transportation, natural resources, road builders and a couple of labor unions that represent workers in the industry.   They support the proposed amendment because the state transportation fund  fueled by state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees  pays for major highway projects, road maintenance and other transportation costs and services those industries build or use.

That's how the amendment got on the ballot.

Where did it come from?  The proposal is a hybrid of a plan developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a pro-business organization that connects powerful business interests and big campaign contributors with state legislators around the country to develop model legislation on economic and social issues that elected officials can introduce in their states. 

Wisconsin governors have no authority to approve or reject proposed constitutional amendments, which must be approved by two successive legislatures and then by voters in a statewide referendum like the one on the November 4 ballot.  But GOP Governor Scott Walker, who supports the amendment and criticized his predecessor for raiding the transportation fund when the state faced a multi-billion dollar deficit, is also a major beneficiary of the amendment's special interest backers.  Those interests contributed slightly more than a third  $15.7 million  of the $45.1 million in large individual and PAC contributions the governor accepted between 2011 and July 2014.

And whether the amendment passes  as is likely  or not next Tuesday, Walker and the legislature still face the politically distasteful problem of how to close the fund's multi-million dollar deficit and sell a solution to voters that is likely to include tax and fee increases.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Founders' Design Corrupted

Our nation's founders wrote the Federalist Papers to articulate their vision for a new independent nation and justify their proposed design for a new government. They wrote using pseudonyms due to fear for the authors' liberty and life if the crown discovered their true identities.

Writing as "Publius" in Federalist No. 52, one of the founders (widely thought by historians to be James Madison, although some believe it may have been Alexander Hamilton) argued for a "government which ought to be dependent on the people alone."

He outlined principles of representation through elections that would produce such a condition.

A government dependent on the people alone. That was the founders' design. That was their gift to us.

You and I know we do not have that today. You and I know this design has been fundamentally corrupted.

Today's government officials are not dependent on the people alone. They have conflicting dependencies. Competing dependencies.

Elected representatives are supposed to take their cues from the voters alone. But with election campaigning so insanely expensive, those representatives have little choice but to also take cues from their campaign donors. And the donor population is not the same as the voting population. On average, state legislators get two-thirds of their campaign money from people who cannot vote for them because these financial backers live outside the legislators' districts. Governor Scott Walker gets more than half of his money from people who are ineligible to vote for him because they live outside Wisconsin's borders.

This corruption of the founders' design has very tangible costs.

A Democracy Campaign report identified close to four dozen actions taken by legislators and the governor just since January 2013 that provided at least $760 million worth of benefits to special interests in the form of tax breaks and other policy favors.

These decisions cost the average family of four $528. If you read the entire list of actions, you will be hard-pressed to find a single one that benefits you. There is a sales tax exemption for companies that print and deliver junk mail. There is another sales tax exemption for aircraft parts.

When you go to the department store to buy a pair of shoes or some clothing, you pay the sales tax. But if you have enough money to own an airplane, you no longer have to pay tax on parts for your plane. If you are in the junk mail business, you don't have to pay the state sales tax anymore either.

Manufacturers of lead paint have been given protection from future product liability lawsuits. Those who send their children to private schools now get an income tax deduction. The list goes on and on.

Here in Wisconsin we've been told repeatedly that the state is broke and government must do less for us. Yet those who bankroll election campaigns have been given more. At least $760 million more.

The few benefit at the expense of the many because the founders' design has been corrupted and we do not have a government dependent on the people alone.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ultrawealthy Pump $3.8 Million In 90 Days Into Elections

Wisconsin contributors gave $3.8 million in three months to political groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash on outside electioneering activities, and most of the contributions went to groups that have been sponsoring negative mailings and broadcast ads in the state's November 4 elections.

The contributions flowed to so-called 527 groups between July and September, and the bulk of the cash  $3.4 million or 90 percent  came from just two dozen donors.

Coupled with contributions in the first 18 months of the 2013-14 election cycle, wealthy Wisconsin individuals, corporations, unions and trade and ideological groups have doled out a total of $9.1 million to 527 groups, including about $6.6 million to 527 groups involved in the statewide and legislative elections.

Topping the Wisconsin contributions was another $1 million from a Milwaukee couple  Mike and Mary Sue Shannon  to the Republican Governors Association, which has spent at least $2.1 million on mostly television advertising to support GOP Governor Scott Walker’s reelection bid. The Shannons have contributed a total $2.5 million to the national group since January 2013, according to reports the 527 groups must file with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Mike and Mary Sue Shannon

On the Democratic side, Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein and her Brico Fund doled out $888,000 to two 527 groups  EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters  located in Washington D.C. The Brico Fund doled out $738,000 to EMILY’s List and Uihlein personally donated $150,000 to the league between July and September. Since January 2013 the Brico Fund and Uihlein have contributed a little over $1.3 million to 527 groups that back women candidates and environmental causes.

Six 527 groups that collected the bulk of Wisconsin contributions  about $3.23 million between July and September and $6.6 million since January 2013  have spent millions of dollars on independent expenditures and phony ads in the upcoming statewide and legislative elections, mostly on the governor’s race between Walker and Democrat Mary Burke.

Those groups and their Wisconsin contributions since January 2013 are: The Republican Governors Association, $4.05 million; EMILY’s List, $1.06 million; the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, $863,400, Republican State Leadership Committee, $372,382, League of Conservation Voters, $200,000 and America’s Political Action Committee, $65,000.

Up-to-date election spending by these groups is unknown because some of the groups engage in undisclosed issue ads yet to be tallied and the latest independent expenditure reports filed by the other groups with the state don’t have to be filed until the end of the month. Earlier independent expenditure reports showed the Republican Governors Association and Greater Wisconsin have spent $3.3 million.

The 527 reports to the IRS also showed the Republican Attorneys General Association gave $300,000 to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, which recently began airing television ads in support of GOP attorney general candidate Brad Schimel.

The most unusual contribution in the 527 reports was a $25,000 contribution by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a longtime supporter of pro-business legislation and Republican candidates, to the Democratic-leaning Greater Wisconsin Political Fund.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Door Number Four

Americans clearly are sour on politics. According the latest Gallup public opinion polling, the number one problem in the U.S. is “dissatisfaction with government, Congress and politicians” along with “poor leadership, corruption and abuse of power.”

New Associated Press polling shows slightly more than a quarter of Americans say they trust Republicans to manage the government, while just under a quarter trust the Democrats. The biggest bloc of citizens say they don’t trust either major party. And the AP survey showed that public confidence in the government’s ability to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country continues to slip, with 74% now saying they have little or no confidence, compared with 70% who said the same last December.

Both parties are failing our country, leaving most Americans feeling betrayed and politically homeless. But the citizenry’s response to these circumstances leaves the most to be desired.

We’ve all been conditioned to believe we have only three options. Behind door number one is whatever the two major parties offer up. A few partisans on either side are more or less satisfied with what’s behind this door, but most Americans aren’t. Most feel they are forced to hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils. Most look for another door.

Behind door number two is an occasional third-party or independent candidate. But whether it’s Ross Perot one time or Ralph Nader another, this door leads to a dead end. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy. Ours is a two-party system. Supporting a third party invariably ends in disappointment.

That leaves door number three. Behind it is resignation. Sadly, a great many of us are choosing this route, throwing up our hands in disgust and hightailing it for the sidelines. This withdrawal from civic life is now endemic to American politics.

Three doors. No happy ending to be found behind any of them.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a fourth door. We’ve been trained not to recognize it or even acknowledge its existence, much less open it. But it is there all the same. It hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes, but when it was found and opened by past generations, what it led to was transformational and landscape altering.

Door number four is what I call a first-party movement. Third-party movements operate on the political fringes, to the left of the Democrats and to the right of the Republicans. Put another way, they seek to clip the wings of the major parties. First-party insurgencies go for the heart. They compete for the affections of the entire electorate. The goal of third-party movements is to have three or more parties. The goal of first-party organizing is to have at least one that is worth a damn. At least one that truly owes its allegiance to the people.

Conditions are growing ripe for an extensive renovation of the nation’s political landscape. The telltale signs of an impending political implosion are visible. The percentage of Americans who refuse to identify with either major parties is at its highest level in three-quarters of a century. The biggest swath of the electorate — by far — is not the Republican loyalists or the Democratic faithful. Nor is it centrist or moderate. It is politically homeless.

If door number four is opened, the two parties will either adapt or perish. The odds that at least one of the parties will cease to exist in its current form are getting shorter by the day.

We have it in our power to put citizens back in the driver’s seat of our government. The two major parties are repellent. We have it in our power to build a political household that people actually want to live in. It can be done. Our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did it. On more than one occasion they opened door number four and freed themselves from the same kinds of traps that ensnare us again today.

We don’t have to make history. We only have to repeat it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Decriminalizing Bribery And Money Laundering

On what planet does anyone think there is not enough money in politics, not enough special interest influence, and too much public awareness of the buying and selling of our government?

Well, on Earth there is Rudolph Randa and the Five Supremes. It's been the better part of a half century since a rock and roll band could get away with a name so lame, so they must be judges.

In 2010 the five-member majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other interest groups can spend as much as they want to influence American elections. And then earlier this year the court doubled down on its infamous Citizens United decision and struck down a key federal limit on campaign contributions made by individuals.

In a country of well over 300 million people, just over 1,200 individuals reached the $123,000 limit on overall donations to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. The ruling majority on the high court found intolerable the way the law cramped the style of 0.000003% of the nation's population and invalidated that law.

A month later Wisconsin's $10,000 annual limit on overall donations from individuals for state and local elections experienced the same fate. Fewer than 300 individuals had managed to bump up against the state limit in 2010 and 2012 elections combined, including 173 living outside Wisconsin. Just like that, five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population had their ability to legally bribe state lawmakers increased exponentially, and they are taking full advantage.

Now this week Randa orders Wisconsin election officials to stop enforcing a law limiting how much candidates can collect from political committees run by special interest groups, parties and legislative campaigns.

Randa is the judge who also ordered a halt to the latest John Doe investigation into political corruption in Wisconsin. He ruled that there is nothing illegal about candidates and interest groups coordinating their election activities.

"Coordination" sounds abstract and mundane and benign. What Randa actually blessed is money laundering. What is under investigation is apparent conspiracy to get around legal limits on political donations as well as disclosure requirements by steering money intended to aid a candidate for state office to a tax-exempt "social welfare" group that does not have to publicly report the origins of its money.

If the skewed judgment of Randa and the Five Supremes stands up over the long haul, Americans will be left with a right to free speech that is proportionate to the size of their bank accounts, two parties joined at the billfold, and a tiny fraction of 1% of the population fully empowered to lord over the rest of us.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Muzzling Democracy

Beer, billboards, sick days, soda, shooting at stuff, mining and manure.

These were some of the subjects the Republican-led legislature and Governor Scott Walker have told communities they can’t properly handle and imposed state laws that slashed local control – usually with the support of powerful special interests that contributed about $47 million since 2010 to partisan candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau report in June identified 64 measures the legislature and the governor have approved since 2011 that force communities to pay for state mandates or seize their authority to make decisions about public health, environmental, land use, transportation and other matters.

In addition to stripping locals of their policymaking autonomy, more than half of the proposals were barely aired in public. Thirty-six measures were tucked into two massive state budget bills in 2011 and 2013 that aren’t meant to include non-spending policy items and often got little or no attention.

Here are some of the proposals that took away local government control and the campaign contributions from the special interests behind them:

 The 2013-15 state budget contained dozens of non-spending policy items that didn’t belong in it, including 16 proposals that removed the authority of communities to enact local laws. Some of these budget provisions prohibited communities from enforcing public employee residency requirements, siting cell phone and radio towers; limiting the sale of certain foods and beverages; and enacting commercial erosion controls measures tougher than state law. More than a dozen special interests supported the budget because generous tax breaks and exemptions, environmental deregulation and the hijacking of local control make it cheaper and easier for them to conduct business. Those interests included manufacturers, business, real estate, construction, transportation and agriculture concerns which contributed $4.6 million in 2012 and 2013 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and $15.7 million to the governor;

 Exempt iron mining companies from meeting local zoning ordinances dealing with public health, environment and land use. The measure was passed in 2013 to deregulate iron mining in Wisconsin for an out-of-state mining company that wants to build a large open-pit mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The proposal was supported by more than a dozen special interests including business, manufacturing, construction, transportation and natural resources that contributed $7 million between 2011 and 2013 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and $37 million to Walker;

 Prevent communities from enacting or enforcing ordinances stricter than state law involving the construction and remodeling of public buildings. The measure was approved in 2014 with the support of the construction industry and the state carpenters union which contributed $733,365 between 2011 and 2013 to legislators and nearly $4 million to the governor;

 Restrict the ability of communities to regulate sport shooting ranges and bow-and-arrow and crossbow hunting, and provide shooting ranges with greater legal immunity for negligence. Legislative approval for the three laws that accomplished these changes was led by majority Republicans with support from pro-gun and hunting groups who contributed $10,325 to GOP legislators and $17,175 to Walker between 2011 and 2013. But direct contributions from pro-gun interests is minute compared to their spending on outside electioneering activities. For instance the National Rifle Association, the nation’s preeminent pro-gun lobby, doled out $863,500 in reported outside electioneering spending to support Republican legislators and Walker between 2011 and 2013;

 Prevent local communities from prohibiting repairs to nonconforming structures, like docks and boathouses, subject to shoreland zoning based on the cost of the repairs and also prevent local ordinances from being stricter than state shoreland regulations. Legislative approval for the 2012 law was led by majority Republicans and drew support from construction and real estate interests which contributed $1.4 million to GOP legislators and about $5.6 million to the governor between 2010 and 2012;

 Establish requirements for communities to make it more difficult to impose development moratoriums, and limit moratoriums to one year plus a six-month extension if necessary. The 2012 law requires communities to have an engineer certify that a proposed development would overburden public facilities and pose a significant threat to public health and safety. Legislative approval was led by majority Republicans and the measure was supported by construction and real estate interests which contributed $1.4 million to GOP legislators and $5.6 million to the governor between 2010 and 2012;

 Prohibit local governments from enacting family and medical leave ordinances on local businesses. The proposal was enacted in 2011 with the backing of construction, tourism, manufacturing, business and other interests which contributed nearly $5.1 million to the legislature between 2010 and 2011, including $4.2 million to Republicans who controlled the Assembly and Senate, and $11.4 million to Walker;

 Prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances that limit the ability of landlords to obtain or use certain information about tenants or prospective tenants, such as income, credit history, court records, and social security numbers; handle security deposits, tenant property and inspections; show the premises to prospective tenants; and impose moratoriums on evicting tenants. These restrictions were in three measures that became law in 2011 and 2013 with support from the construction and real estate industries which contributed about $1.9 million to legislators between 2010 and 2013, including nearly $1.7 million to majority Republicans, and $6.4 million to Walker;

 The 2011-13 state budget was a Trojan horse for 20 provisions that restricted the authority of communities to govern themselves. One controversial item replaced locally issued brewer’s permits with a broader state permit that critics say limits the ability of local brewers to get wholesale licenses as well as where and how they can sell their products. Other budget provisions prohibited regional transit authorities, local regulation of bird hunting preserves, revamped bidding requirements for local, highway and public works projects, and placed strict levy limits on county and municipal governments. It’s nearly impossible to determine which special interests supported any given proposal due to the lack of specific state disclosure requirements. The dozen-plus special interest groups that supported the 2011-13 state budget contributed $5.8 million in 2010 and 2011 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and nearly $9.1 million to Walker.