Thursday, September 29, 2005

It Pays To Protest

Public outrage over Wisconsin's disastrous agreement with Accenture LLP to develop the state's voter registration system already had forced changes to the contract protecting voter privacy and enabling state officials to inspect the computer source code the company writes to program the computers used for voter registration. Now it looks like public scrutiny is saving state taxpayers millions.

At this week's Elections Board meeting, Accenture spokeswoman Meg McLaughlin claimed that the company already has spent more than $20 million on the project. Under the voter-list contract, Accenture is due to receive $13.9 million for its work. In May, Elections Board director Kevin Kennedy publicly stated that he was open to giving Accenture more money. But now that possibility has been effectively closed off, thanks to public pressure. Board members now all insist that Accenture will not get a penny more than the contract calls for.

Kennedy once described the Elections Board and Accenture as "partners." The marriage appears to be on the rocks. Two weeks ago, Kennedy shot off a letter to McLaughlin pinning the blame squarely on Accenture for Wisconsin's certain failure to meet the looming January 1 federal deadline to have a working computerized voter registration system. This week, McLaughlin fired back, pointing fingers at the state and devoting eight pages to a point-by-point description of all the ways Kennedy has parted company with the truth.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Little House Of Horrors

If anyone is still wondering why the state Assembly is called the "lower house" of the Legislature, look no further than what one reporter called the "bizarre turn of events" when the GOP-led body apparently voted to override Governor Jim Doyle's veto of higher payments to nursing homes serving patients in the state's Medicaid program.

The Assembly's presiding officer, Republican Steve Freese, refused to allow Milwaukee Democrat Pedro Colon to cast his vote, which would have sustained the governor's veto. When the vote was being tallied, Colon was talking to Republican representatives in the Assembly parlor. When Colon returned from the parlor he was not allowed to register his vote, although it is the longstanding custom of the Assembly to record the votes of temporarily absent members. Meanwhile, the Republicans Colon was speaking to at the time he missed his vote had their votes recorded, meaning their seat mates pushed their voting buttons for them although they weren't physically present – a common practice that technically isn't allowed under Assembly rules.

When asked by reporters to explain his actions in the wake of all this childishness, Freese said it is not his responsibility to make sure people are in their seats and voting, and went on to say that at times in the past he hasn't called missing people in for votes because they had been mean to him.

The whole hullabaloo most likely will end up being academic, since overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature. It is considered highly improbable that the Senate will be able to muster a two-thirds majority to reverse the nursing home veto.

Just in case you're laboring under the mistaken impression that truth is stranger than fiction only in the Assembly, check out this and this about Senator Tom Reynolds, a Wauwatosa Republican who even right-wing radio talk show host Charlie Sykes calls a "nut job." Reynolds once proposed creating a private Autobahn next to I-94 where drivers could drive as fast as they want for a fee. Now he's one of three legislators working to end election-day voter registration, a longstanding tradition in Wisconsin that is widely credited for higher than average voter turnout in the state.

Then there's the revelation that an aide to another state senator made more than 200 calls during work hours on a state phone to a campaign worker for Menomonee Falls municipal candidates the aide supported. Phone records show that the aide to River Hills Republican Alberta Darling, Chris Slinker, also put in a call to an Appleton print shop that produced campaign materials for Menomonee Falls trustee candidates.

You'd think the fact that five of the most powerful politicians in Wisconsin face criminal trials for misusing state offices and taxpayer money in this same way would serve as a cautionary tale for staffers like Slinker, who now plans to challenge fellow Republican Sue Jeskewitz for the Assembly seat she currently holds in a 2006 GOP primary. Indeed, Slinker says "I would have to be a complete idiot to (do campaign work) from the office."

Like Forrest Gump's mama used to tell him, "stupid is as stupid does."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Wisconsin Equivalent Of FEMA

Wisconsin's decision to outsource work on the development of a federally mandated voter registration system is backfiring big time. The project already was plagued by cost overruns, but now we find out through an open records request that there are so many bugs in the computer system being developed for the state by Accenture that Wisconsin will not meet the federal government's final January 1, 2006 deadline for state compliance with voter registration requirements in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

The Elections Board's response to this revelation has been positively FEMA-like. First, the board looked for someone else to blame. The most convenient culprit was the "unrealistic deadline set by Congress." Pointing fingers at the feds is always a sound damage-control strategy, so long as no one notices that Wisconsin was granted a two-year extension from the law's original implementation deadline of January 1, 2004 or that states like Minnesota already have completed the work and complied with the federal law, at a fraction of the cost of Wisconsin's contract with Accenture.

Then, just as President Bush was nonchalant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation and federal homeland security officials were caught unaware of desperate conditions in the Superdome and convention center, Elections Board director Kevin Kennedy claimed in a press release issued yesterday that voter list problems are "not unique" to Wisconsin and, besides, the board is just now learning of Accenture's failings.

Mimicking ousted FEMA director Michael Brown, Kennedy says the board "learned last week of similar situations" in other states that have contracts with Accenture. "Brownie" made the mistake of not watching TV, where images of the human suffering were being beamed to an international audience. Kennedy evidently neglected to read the newspaper, where word of Accenture's screw-ups in other states has been reported since at least early March.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bopping The Donkey

It looks like indicted former Senate Democratic leader Chuck Chvala has enlisted a most unlikely legal ally as he tries to beat a rap that includes felony charges of extortion, illegal campaign contributions and criminal misconduct in public office. Word is Chvala has added nationally prominent right-wing attorney James Bopp to his legal defense team.

This is the same James Bopp who serves as general counsel for the anti-abortion group National Right to Life. It is the same James Bopp who has led the legal fight against campaign finance reform and who unsuccessfully tried to get the national McCain-Feingold campaign reform law overturned in court. In fact, if you Google Bopp, the top result of the search is "Find a Republican Lawyer."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tee Up Those Checkbooks

There’s nothing like having a key committee vote on a controversial legislative proposal shortly before a fundraising event in order to maximize a special interest’s gratitude – in cash.

On Friday, September 2 the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Insurance recommended 6-1 that the full Senate reject an Assembly proposal to require insurance companies to pay for much of the cost of removing polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs – that were dumped in the Fox River by paper companies from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Both the committee and the Senate are controlled by Republicans.

First, the vote was scheduled on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend to give it as little attention as possible.

But second, the favorable vote for insurance companies also came less than a week before the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate’s $1,000 per person golf fundraiser scheduled September 8 at Sentry Insurance’s golf course in Stevens Point.

Hmmmmm. . . committee action, fundraiser, any connection?

Kegglers Fess Up

Most special interest groups routinely claim they contribute to political candidates out of civic duty and for other altruistic reasons and staunchly deny that they target their contributions to go to legislative leaders and others in key positions to move their agenda.

But every so often one of them, like the Bowling Proprietors of America, tells it like it really is. Check this out.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bowling For Gard

Bowling interests want to throw a strike with Assembly Bill 414, a proposed statewide smoking ban that would not cover them and prevent communities from enacting local laws that would.

Like many other special interests, they’ve figured the best way to do that it to give the Assembly’s head pin, Speaker John Gard, some cash for his 8th District Congressional campaign.

Gard’s campaign received a $1,000 contribution on June 14 from the Bowling Proprietors of America. It was one of only three contributions the group gave to federal candidates nationwide from April through June. This group has never made political action committee contributions to any Wisconsin candidate for statewide office or the Legislature.

On June 21, the Assembly Rules Committee, which determines the schedule of proposals the Assembly will debate, altered the Assembly’s June 23 calendar by making AB414 “a special order of business.” That’s legislative jargon “for urgent matters and for proposals of particular interest to the party leadership,” according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The proposal narrowly passed 48-45 with Gard voting ‘aye.’ It awaits Senate action.

WI Contributions To Shadow Groups Nearly $291,000 In First Half Of '05

Wisconsin corporations and individuals contributed $290,876 to groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to pay for negative political advertising and other electioneering activities during the first six months of 2005.

So-called 527 groups like the well-known America Coming Together and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are named for the Internal Revenue Service code that regulates them.

Ten of Wisconsin’s 107 contributors doled out $10,000 or more in contributions during the six-month period. Topping the list was Daniel Bader, of Milwaukee, a long-time generous giver to Democratic candidates and organizations, at $50,000; and Mary and Terry Kohler, of Sheboygan, who have been big contributors to Republican candidates and conservative causes, at $45,000.

The top five 527 recipients of Wisconsin contributions are the Democratic Governors Association at $90,000; three pro-Republican groups – the Club for Growth at $51,950, College Republican National Committee at $37,235 and GOPAC at $36,950; and the pro-Democratic Laborers Political League Education Fund at $33,320.

The Wisconsin contributions are nearly evenly split, as they were in the 2003-04 election cycle, between Republican- and Democratic-leaning 527s. Republican 527 groups received $147,404 and Democratic 527s accepted $143,272 from Wisconsin contributors. The remaining $200 went to a 527 group that has supported Republicans and Democrats.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Schoolhouse Rock, It Ain't

For an "evil, adult version" of How a Bill Becomes a Law, check out this article in Rolling Stone magazine. This first-person account of a month on the Hill speaks volumes about the rot at the top in our nation's capital. But it also sounds themes that are hauntingly familiar to anyone who is familiar with the goings-on in our State Capitol right here in Wisconsin.