Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Dick Armey Declares War On Wisconsin's High Court

As the Democracy Campaign reported in an e-mail update earlier this month, a national Republican front group run by former House GOP leader Dick Armey of Texas is about to launch an offensive aimed at influencing the makeup of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Armey's group plans to spend $2 million to unseat conservative Justice Patrick Crooks, who angered right-wing interests with rulings on medical malpractice and product liability cases.

The source of the millions Armey plans to raise to defeat Crooks will be carefully concealed. His group flies below the radar, engaging in campaign practices allowing it to sidestep both federal and state reporting requirements.

Armey's army won't be alone in this battle. Big business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce also plans to weigh in heavily in the campaign to throw out Crooks. WMC is soliciting corporate contributions from member companies for a "Job Defense Fund" it will use to engage in anti-Crooks electioneering.

WMC also will have to take pains to dodge state and federal campaign disclosure laws because reporting the source of funds would reveal the corporate contributions, which are illegal under both federal law and state law in Wisconsin.

This effort to buy justice is part of a rapidly growing national trend. The Institute on Money in State Politics has released a new report showing that special interests raised more than $19 million to air ads in state Supreme Court races in six other states, with about three-fourths of the money coming from contributors interested in the issue of limiting liability in lawsuits.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Here's Smoke In Your Eye

A recent Democracy Campaign report, “Gagging Democracy,” shows wealthy special interests that want to trash local land use, salary and public health laws that cost them money have contributed seven times more to legislative campaigns than groups that oppose preemption laws. Majority Republicans have accepted about 13 times more from special interests that oppose local control than those that favor it.

An aside the report doesn’t identify are legislators who have supported seizing local control even though they represent communities that want their own standards.

Topping the list was Assembly Majority Leader Michael Huebsch of Onalaska. He represents five of the 21 local governments that have passed laws to regulate smoking in bars and eateries, including Onalaska, the city and county of La Crosse, Holmen and West Salem. Yet Huebsch voted in favor of a bill to strike down local smoking ordinances.

It’s probably just a coincidence that Huebsch accepted 75 percent, or $49,544, of his large individual campaign contributions in 2003-04 from special interests outside his district.

Others who voted for the proposed state smoking standard but represent communities with tougher laws include Republican Representatives Leah Vukmir, Dean Kaufert, Mary Williams, Kitty Rhoades, Terri McCormick and Greg Underheim, and Democratic Representative Dave Travis. The proposal awaits action in the Senate.

Six representatives voted in favor of a proposal signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle that prevents communities from setting minimum wages higher than those dictated by the state, even though they represent some of the communities that set higher wages before the new state law. They are Republican Representatives Mark Honadel, Curt Gielow and Vukmir and Republican Senators Dan Kapanke, Alberta Darling and Tom Reynolds.

Monday, August 08, 2005

What Bush And Doyle Have In Common

Everyone knows President Bush has. . . how shall we say. . . a way with words. And everyone has a personal favorite among his countless misstatements and malapropisms. Here's one that's sure to stand the test of time, uttered on August 5, 2004: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Whatever afflicts Bush, it seems Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle's got it too. Explaining how he foiled a plot by Republican lawmakers to politically embarrass him by cleverly exercising his veto powers, Doyle said: "They thought they had set a clever little trick box here by which you either had to choose between ruining schools or raising property taxes. In fact, I found a way to make sure we could do both."

Perhaps such verbal gaffes are just the inevitable fate of the oft-quoted. Or maybe they're guilt-inspired Freudian slips of the tongue. After all, before he was elected governor, Doyle spoke plainly about the excessive veto authority possessed by Wisconsin chief executives. "I don't think you should be able to go in and take a word out there and a word out here and create a whole new sentence," he said at the time. Now that he has the power to single-handedly ruin schools and raise property taxes, he sings a different tune. "Let's just say I see the world differently from the position I'm in right now," the governor offers in his defense.

It's hardly the first time Doyle's vantage point has changed his thinking. Before his election as governor, he promised to make campaign finance reform and a thorough clean-up of Capitol ethics his first order of business. After taking office, he ran screaming from the issue.

Friday, August 05, 2005

If You Add Up All The Special Interests, Do They Equal The Public Interest?

More than a half-million people in Wisconsin have no health insurance and hundreds of thousands more are a pink slip away from being unable to take their kids to the doctor. State school funding policies are such a disaster that one school district recently declared bankruptcy and voted to shut down. Every lake in Wisconsin is contaminated with mercury and there have been repeated air quality alerts this summer.

You'd think that maybe the Legislature and the more than 650 advocacy groups supposedly trying to influence lawmakers on behalf of the people of our state would be focused on issues like health care reform, school finance, and air and water pollution.

Guess again.

Reports filed with the state Ethics Board show lobbying groups spent a record $16.2 million in the first half of the year trying to influence public officials. Lobbyists spent 145,000 hours twisting arms and scratching backs, the equivalent of more than 137 eight-hour days for every state legislator. But they didn't spend it pushing for universal health care coverage or a revamped school funding system or more rigorous environmental protection.

Aside from the state budget, which lobbyists spent 42,900 hours trying to shape, the number one issue was . . . drumroll, please . . . a decades-old dispute between insurance companies and the paper industry. Nearly 3,400 hours were devoted to lobbying on Assembly Bill 222, legislation requiring insurers to give the paper mills money from policies up front and then fight among themselves in court over the exact amount each owes to clean up PCBs dumped in the Fox River.

Another of the 10 most heavily lobbied bills was one of the state preemption bills we highlighted in our "Gagging Democracy" report detailing how state legislators are overruling actions by locally elected officials to benefit big campaign contributors. Lobbyists spent 835 hours bending legislators' ears about Assembly Bill 414, which preempts local ordinances banning smoking in restaurants and bars.

Overall, the biggest spender on lobbying was the big business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which threw $545,408 at influence peddling during the six-month period. WMC was followed by Wisconsin Hospital Association, Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Wisconsin Education Association Council and paper company Georgia-Pacific Corporation.

Georgia-Pacific spent $337,547 lobbying during the first half of this year, most of it on the insurance bill (AB 222). This compares to the $6,995 the company spent on lobbying during the first six months of 2003. Similarly, the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance poured $400,697 into its lobbying effort during the past six months, compared to the $55,842 it spent during the first half of 2003.