Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Want A Third Party? Would You Settle For Two?

Anyone who has ever paid Senator Mike Ellis a visit in his Capitol office knows the chalkboard. And has heard the lecture.

Scribbled on the chalkboard is a Da Vinci Code of numbers and acronyms that tell of the state's financial condition. Ask and you shall receive the sermon about fund balances and GPR and SEG and structural deficits.

Ellis is a dying breed, a true fiscal conservative. He's also a former math teacher. And he knows the state budget. He knows it's built on a foundation of flim-flam. He'll say as much. More is spent than is paid for. The bottom line is made to look balanced by accounting trickery and more than a little borrowed from the future.

During a recent visit, Ellis went off on the fiscal dishonesty of both sides. The Neenah Republican had choice words for his side's habit of claiming to be champions of fiscal restraint and friends of the taxpayer. He pointed to two numbers on his chalkboard. The first was the amount of spending authorized under the budget signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle. The second was the amount of spending in the budget approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and deposited on Doyle's desk. The second number was considerably higher.

And these people call themselves fiscal conservatives, Ellis ranted. And worse yet, he marvels, their supporters actually believe the hocum they peddle.

Then he aims his ire in Doyle's direction. The governor claims he's cleaned up the state's fiscal mess and balanced the budget . . . without raising taxes. Ellis has two problems with that song and dance. First, he reminds anyone who will listen that the budget is not really balanced. Smoke and mirrors and credit cards make it appear balanced, but it is structurally out of whack. Hundreds of millions more are spent than are paid for. The bill will eventually come due. Second, under the headline that taxes have not been raised is paragraphs of fine print. Taxes haven't been raised if you only count general purpose revenue tax rates and ignore all the increases in user fees and college tuition. More hocum, as Ellis sees it.

What rankles Ellis the most, however, is how the two parties have melted into one on matters budgetary. In the past, he insists, if the state faced a budget crunch, Democrats stood up and said taxes needed to be raised to pay for needed programs. Republicans said all those programs weren't so necessary and insisted spending could be cut. Sometimes, Wisconsin voters felt important investments needed to be made and sided with the Democrats. Other times, taxpayers felt state officials were playing a little too fast and loose with their money and went for the Republicans.

Now, Ellis says, you can't tell the difference between the two parties. The Republicans' dirty little secret is that they love to spend, he says, especially to build roads and prisons. But they're allergic to raising taxes. Democrats like Doyle likewise keep feeding their pet programs but refuse to raise taxes to honestly pay the bills.

All this must leave voters horribly disoriented, Ellis concludes. Citizens don't know who to believe on the budget, because both sides are for spending without taxing.

That chalkboard in the senator's office don't lie. But it also reveals only the tip of the iceberg that menaces the ship of state. The disorientation voters are feeling is very real, but it goes way beyond the issues of taxing and spending.

Doyle Does Damage Control

Within hours of the Democracy Campaign calling attention to $10,000 in donations from 10 New York City attorneys with a top class-action law firm recently indicted on federal racketeering, money laundering, mail fraud, obstruction of justice and other charges, Governor Jim Doyle's campaign announced it is returning the money.

It's remarkable how it always takes the media or some watchdog group going public with embarrassing facts to prod the people running political campaigns to do the right thing. They're almost never proactive about this kind of thing. Don't they read the newspapers? You'd think they'd see campaign donors indicted by a federal grand jury and maybe come to the conclusion that keeping those contributions is not such a bright idea.

Considering how much time, energy and money campaigns spend digging up dirt on their opponents, it never ceases to amaze that they won't spend a dime to prevent self-inflicted wounds.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ebert's Review: Thumbs Down!

Before sentencing former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen to 15 months in prison and banning him from the Capitol for five years, Judge Steven Ebert lectured Jensen for close to 20 minutes about his crimes. In doing so, Ebert spoke volumes about government ethics in Wisconsin and the condition of our democracy.

Ebert said as he listened to testimony day after day, he would "wonder whether or not this trial illustrated the ethical standards of the Legislature and the corrupting influence of money and power. And I have to conclude that yes, it did. Painfully so. It reflected that." He went on to say "Wisconsin's government is indeed in a deplorable state."

The judge told Jensen "you have placed personal ambition and greed above your oath of office," undermining democracy for a "private and venal" purpose. Ebert said Jensen was the ringleader of an "elite cabal" that engaged in "chicanery and deception," and told the Waukesha-area Republican "your acts reflect the truth of the statement, 'power corrupts.'"

Ebert was just getting warmed up. "What occurred was little more than common thievery elevated to a higher plane for one purpose, and that was to push forward your agenda." He added, "I think that represented the degradation of the Wisconsin ideal of democracy."

The judge continued: "You knew what you were doing. You knew it was illegal."

And then this: "Your idea of representative government is if you've got the money, you're represented."

Ebert said the end result of Jensen's actions was the "perversion of the legislative process." He lamented that "there was a time when many of us can remember taking pride in Wisconsin's reputation for good government. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case."

In the end, the judge told Jensen, "to ensure your political party prevailed, you have guaranteed that you're going to be known and remembered for these felony convictions and for the harm you've created...."


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Fox And The Donkey

Fox Broadcasting’s news content and presentation is viewed by many as rabidly pro-Republican.

When Fox talk show host Tony Snow was recently picked by President Bush as his new press secretary, Democrats chortled that every Fox broadcaster is already a mouthpiece for the Republican White House.

So it may come as no surprise that Fox executives and employees are interested in politics and make campaign contributions to candidates throughout the country, including Wisconsin.

But what may surprise you is the Wisconsin officeholder who can claim a Fox Broadcasting executive as her biggest individual contributor between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2005 – Democratic Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton.

Lawton has received two contributions – on November 5, 2003 and December 22, 2005 – totaling $6,000 from John Nesvig of Riverside, Connecticut, who campaign reports describe as president of sales for Fox Broadcasting, which is part of Rupert Murdoch’s global communications empire.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

With Friends Like These....

The Assembly voted late yesterday to block an effort to bring Senate Bill 1 to the floor for a vote.

The roll call vote on the motion to pull the ethics reform legislation from the Rules Committee and take it up provided plenty of evidence of the considerable arm twisting that was done by Assembly leaders to ensure the bill would remain bottled up. Several Republican sponsors and self-proclaimed supporters of SB 1 — including Representatives Steve Freese of Dodgeville, Eugene Hahn of Cambria, Dean Kaufert of Neenah and Terry Musser of Black River Falls — voted to kill their own bill.

A Ruckus For Reform

More than 150 People's Legislature members picketed in front of the Assembly chamber yesterday morning demanding a vote on ethics reform legislation. Assembly members had to run a gauntlet of picketers as they entered the chamber, with protesters chanting "vote!" and "SB 1" and holding signs with messages such as "Give Clean Government a Chance" or "Stop the Corruption" and calling for "Ethics Reform Now." When the Assembly convened, People's Legislature members shouted "up or down vote" and unfurled a large banner saying "Clean Up Your Act . . . Vote on Senate Bill 1."

One of the onlookers was none other than convicted ex-lawmaker-turned lobbyist Steve Foti. When spotted by rally participants, Foti was greeted with chants of "work release, work release" and "Foti go home!"

A representative of the state technical colleges told one People's Legislature organizer that the pro-reform crowd was so loud that a Senate committee working on a proposed constitutional amendment limiting government taxing and spending adjourned its meeting because members could not hear each other.

The Assembly recessed and members escaped to closed-door caucuses guarded by Capitol police.

To see photos of the People's Legislature protest, go here.