Wednesday, June 29, 2005

No Trespassing! Property of Special Interests

Republican Representative Frank Lasee of Bellevue recently railed about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows local governments to take someone’s property and give it to developers or corporations that will use it to generate more taxes. “Government can take it for no better reason than somebody with deeper pockets wants it,” Lasee said.

Interesting….the same Frank Lasee recently voted in favor of a bill approved by the Assembly that would require communities to give up their land if a utility came along and said it needed it for a power line or plant project. The proposal grew out of outrage by some legislators over the Douglas County Board’s refusal to acquiesce to the demands of American Transmission Company to run a power line across county property.

So Lasee’s got a problem with government taking property for no other reason than someone with deep pockets wants it, but he doesn’t have a problem with private companies with deep pockets taking property?

Well, the utility industry and their friends have some pretty deep pockets. Utilities have contributed $324,695 to legislators’ campaigns and its projects have the blessing of other wealthy special interests like manufacturing, business, construction, agriculture and transportation that have contributed millions more. By the way, the utilities and those other special interests have contributed $49,213 to Lasee’s campaigns, about one-third of his total special interest contributions since 1993.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Justice Delayed

It took 418 days for Michael Jackson to be indicted, tried and acquitted of child molestation charges, 275 days passed between Martha Stewart's indictment and her conviction for obstruction of justice and insider trading, and it took 473 days for murder charges filed against O.J. Simpson to be dismissed.

The wheels of justice are turning considerably more slowly in the cases of top Wisconsin politicians facing felony corruption charges, thanks to the creativity of high-priced lawyers and a state court system that has granted them the rare privilege of hearing their repeated pre-trial appeals. By our count, it's been 1,098 days since criminal charges were filed against former Senator Brian Burke, 985 days have passed since former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was charged with 20 felonies including extortion, and 984 days since the felony indictments of former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti.

No trials are yet in sight.

Chvala left the Legislature after the charges against him were filed. Jensen stepped down as Assembly Speaker but has been re-elected – twice – and was given the plum assignment of serving on the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee. Burke and Foti now are Capitol lobbyists.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Pulp Protection

Wisconsin's paper industry is buying up some good insider influence in the Legislature and providing a safety net for four former legislative leaders turned contract lobbyists.

Former Democratic State Senator Brian Burke has been hired by Arjo Wiggins Appleton Ltd. Burke, a former Joint Finance Committee co-chair, decided not to seek reelection in 2002 because he faces felony charges for hawking campaign contributions on state time and on state property. The company also hired former Republican Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer who lost her job in a September 2004 primary contest to now Republican Senator Glenn Grothman.

Georgia-Pacific has hired former Republican Senator Bob Welch who left his state Senate seat in a failed bid last September for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. The company also hired former Republican Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti who decided not to run for reelection because he faces trial for putting a campaign fundraiser on the state payroll.

In the last few years the industry has scored millions of dollars in tax breaks and exemptions for its production and waste disposal costs. Now they're pushing a bill, which was approved 49-44 Thursday in the Assembly, to accelerate insurance settlements they claim they need to clean up PCB pollution they caused in the Fox River. The four ex-legislators accepted $6,100 in campaign contributions from the industry while they were in office.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

State Representative Spencer Black says he's considering an independent run for governor next year. Which has Governor Doyle asking if Black and dissatisfied progressives who are urging him on "really want to have a Republican governor or not?"

Doyle's problem is that when a large and growing number of people ponder his question, their answer is that someone like Spencer Black needs to run.

Dissatisfaction with the current political landscape knows no partisan boundaries. Isthmus editor Marc Eisen's column this week is devoted to talking up the idea of Mike Ellis running for the Republican nomination for governor. Homeless Republican moderates who are tired – not to mention privately terrified – of the "guns, gays, God and feeding tubes" crowd that has hijacked the GOP would love to see an Ellis candidacy.

Eisen figures Ellis could pull a Lee Dreyfus in a three-way race with right-wing poster boys Scott Walker and Mark Green, and wonders out loud if state employees disgusted with Doyle might even cross over and vote for Ellis.

What's most intriguing about Eisen's analysis is his contention that Ellis could benefit from what he calls the "All Hell Breaks Loose scenario." He notes that the Capitol corruption cases against Brian Burke, Chuck Chvala, Scott Jensen, Steve Foti and a Foti aide will likely come to trial before the 2006 election. But Eisen says the "real time bomb tick-tick-ticking away could be the Nick Hurtgen indictment" that is "giving night sweats to Wisconsin GOP leaders, according to several Republican activists."

Hurtgen is the former Thompson administration insider who became a Bear Stearns bond executive and now faces up to 80 years in prison on extortion and fraud charges in Illinois stemming from a massive federal corruption sweep. Eisen cites published reports saying the feds are looking into Hurtgen's Wisconsin dealings and asks "(w)hat if, in a deal to avoid prison, he rolls over on somebody big in Wisconsin politics."

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Will He Give It Back?

It will be interesting to see if Democratic Governor Jim Doyle's upcoming campaign finance report shows he gave back an illegal $5,000 corporate contribution his campaign accepted last year.

Doyle's July to December 2004 report showed the campaign received $5,000 on December 22 from Arden Realty Limited in Los Angeles. So far, there has been no evidence the Doyle campaign is admitting to the violation and no evidence of enforcement activity by the State Elections Board, which usually mollycoddles campaign finance law violators.

We Didn't Do It, We Didn't Do It . . . OK, We Did It

After spending the past four years denying that taxpayer money, state workers and public offices were used to run election campaigns, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, former Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti and one-time Foti aide Sherry Schultz are doing an about-face. They now admit what they strenuously denied for so long but contend it was all perfectly legal.

The argument made by their lawyers in the latest pre-trial legal brief stands in stark contrast to what the indicted lawmakers had been saying since 2001. For example, on May 27 of that year, Jensen told the Wisconsin State Journal the "Assembly Republican team has gone to extraordinary lengths to separate government work from campaign work. We insist that employees who wish to campaign do so on their own time and not on the taxpayer's dime."

When it became clear prosecutors had them dead to rights and could prove such statements were lies, a change in legal strategy was in order. Performing this 180-degree turn in legal posture required some creative logic. The lawyers started by blurring the distinction between the activities of private donor-supported legislative campaign committees and taxpayer-supported state offices. They acknowledged the legislators and state staffers were running the legislative campaign committees out of public offices using state resources, but argued that since the legislative campaign committees are legal entities engaged in lawful campaign activity, then it must have been legal for the state officials and their staff to participate in those activities – never mind that the work was done on state time and with taxpayer money in clear violation of state law.

That's like arguing that someone who cannot legally own a gun can use a gun to hunt because hunting is a legal activity.

Nice try.

Monday, June 20, 2005

How Can He Charge That?

Prominent among the list of budget-time fundraisers today are some pricey events by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and Republican Assembly Majority Leader Mike Huebsch.

Doyle's having a $1,000 per person golf outing at University Ridge in Madison. Huebsch is having a cocktails-and-dinner affair at the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells tonight.

Huebsch wants a $500 contribution from anyone who wants to drink with him and $1,000 from anyone who wants to drink and dine.

Curious though....state law limits individual contributions to Assembly incumbents and candidates to $500 per contributor every two years.

What's That Smell?

The state's $3 per ton garbage fee used to help pay for local recycling programs and discourage the dumping of out-of-state trash in Wisconsin was slashed to $2.25 per ton in budget deliberations by the Joint Finance Committee.

Business, manufacturing, paper and waste hauling interests are in line to save $6.1 million a year thanks to the GOP-sponsored proposal passed by the committee a few weeks back. Those powerful special interests have contributed $2.9 million to current legislators since 1993, including $2.4 million, or 83 percent, of their contributions to Republican legislators who control the Legislature.

Leeching Off State Health Care

A while back it was reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that 10 corporations led by Wal-Mart and, ironically, Aurora Health Care are clipping state taxpayers for about $6.4 million a year because they do not offer health care benefits to 2,900 of their employees and families. This forces those workers to enroll in BadgerCare, the state's tax-supported health care program for the poor.

Here's something you did not know: Wal-Mart, which turned a $10.3 billion profit in 2004, and the other nine companies have contributed $330,267 in campaign contributions to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature since 1993.

Two state lawmakers have introduced a proposal to require employers to reimburse the state for providing insurance to uninsured or under-insured employees, but we'll see how far it gets. Business interests led by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which is ever-vigilant at defending breaks and giveaways to business, says state-subsidized health care for workers of Fortune 500 and multi-national companies means the state program is working correctly.

Overall these powerful special interests have contributed $14.34 million to current legislators including $11.47 million, or 80 percent of their contributions, to Republicans who control the Legislature. A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report earlier this year showed how millions of dollars a year in state aid meant to help low and middle income people and start-up businesses are being given to affluent communities and big companies like Wal-Mart.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Welcome to the Big Money Blog

We've started this new weblog to create yet another channel of news, information and opinion about the money in Wisconsin politics, corruption at the Capitol and the condition of our democracy. We'll shine light in dark places and bring you the latest on the Democracy Campaign's efforts to win campaign finance reform, media reform and other pro-democracy reforms.

One of the reasons we've started the Big Money Blog is to provide a place where stories can be told and issues can be highlighted that you won't find elsewhere on our web site as press releases or special reports. Another reason is to create an interactive forum allowing reactions and other comments to be posted by visitors.

We hope you'll find our periodic postings valuable, and most of all we hope you'll participate in this democratic dialogue. Oh, one last thing.... If you have tips, suggestions or other feedback, we're all ears.