Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Legislature Passes Ethics Reform

Both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature yesterday overwhelmingly passed the ethics reform bill that was the subject of a special legislative session. To read the statement the Democracy Campaign issued after final approval of the bill, go here.

The 97-2 vote in the Assembly late in the day yesterday culminated a whirlwind of activity on the ethics bill. The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee unanimously approved the bill in the morning, setting the stage for floor debate. The Senate unanimously approved the legislation without amendment early in the afternoon, and the Assembly vote followed a few hours later. Governor Doyle will sign the bill later this week. (Check out some of the newspaper and television coverage of what unfolded at the Capitol yesterday.)

We hope this will be the first of many legislative victories that serve to restore Wisconsin's good name. When the Democracy Campaign put forward our five-step Power to the Voter agenda a few years ago, one of the things we called for was "independent ethics and campaign finance law enforcement by restructuring the state Elections Board and Ethics Board into a single agency with expanded enforcement powers and more resources, under the direction of a politically independent board." We got that yesterday.

This victory is cause for celebration, but it is only one of many steps that need to be taken to win back Wisconsin's reputation for clean, open and accountable government. Now it's on to much bigger and more difficult fights. Campaign finance reform. Lobbying reform. Fair and impartial justice. Election integrity. There's a lot of work still left to do. Here's hoping the win on ethics reform will create momentum that will carry over to these other battles.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Poison Pill Removed From Ethics Bill

Senate and Assembly leaders announced today they have reached agreement on further changes to the ethics reform bill that is the subject of a special legislative session, including the removal of a self-destruct mechanism – the legislation's controversial "nonseverability" clause – that would have wiped out the entire new enforcement system created by the bill if any part of it were ruled unconstitutional by a court.

Disagreement between leaders of the two houses over the presence of this poison pill in the legislation had become a major sticking point that threatened to derail consideration of the ethics enforcement reform bill. Removal of the nonseverability clause not only represents a major improvement in the bill and a victory for the Democracy Campaign and other reform advocates who pointed out the provision and called for its elimination, but it also clears the way for the legislation to be taken up by both houses this week.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Choice Distinction

Only a listener with the IQ of a potted plant could conclude negative ads about a political candidate around election time are not electioneering activities designed to get people to vote for a certain candidate.

But that is the claim by some wealthy special interest groups that run these nasty ads. Case in point is the Alliance for Choices in Education, a group that promotes the expansion of Milwaukee's school voucher - or school choice - program that uses more than $100 million in state tax dollars to send about 17,000 children to private and religious schools.

On page 5 of a document the alliance filed with the State Elections Board in connection with a complaint against one of its cohorts, All Children Matter, the alliance says it did not give $90,00 to All Children Matter last fall "for the purpose of influencing Wisconsin elections. Rather, it gave money for the purpose of issue advocacy."

But the advocacy never mentioned the groups' issue - school choice.

All Children Matter is before the board amid allegations of campaign finance law violations and money laundering because of a statement in one of its fliers that claimed a Democratic state senate candidate supported higher taxes. The group also used tax issues to attack candidates in other legislative races.

In the governor's race, three of the group's television "issue ads" during last fall's election hammered Democratic Governor Jim Doyle's ethics and the timing of campaign contributions he received from people awarded state contracts. Here are some of the statements from one of those ads: "It seems everything's for sale in Madison, especially under Governor Doyle.... I think that Governor Doyle is definitely corrupted by the money.... Governor Doyle's not running a clean government."

Be that as it may, where exactly is the advocacy for school choice?

Dying To Be A Supreme

What is shaping up to be the most expensive and nastiest race for state Supreme Court Wisconsin has seen prompted the national court-watching group Justice at Stake to issue an alert yesterday. The contest for the open seat on the state's highest court also is the subject of Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy's latest column.

The Democracy Campaign is a partner organization in the Justice at Stake Campaign that is working for fair and impartial courts. This spring's Supreme Court race in Wisconsin promises to be one of the best illustrations yet of why such an effort is needed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Legislature Keeps Moving On Ethics Reform Bill

A state Senate committee yesterday approved an amended version of the ethics reform bill that is the subject of a special legislative session, a day after an Assembly committee made some changes to the legislation and passed it.

The Assembly committee's amendments addressed a few of the concerns raised during last week's public hearings. Yesterday's Senate committee actions went further and fixed some of the most glaring flaws in the legislation identified by reform advocates like the Democracy Campaign.

For example, the Senate committee unanimously approved an amendment removing a poison pill in the bill known as "nonseverability" that not only caught the eye of the Democracy Campaign and other reform backers but also newspapers like the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. The committee also improved public access to information and knocked out a gag rule that WDC objected to and that also drew the ire of many media organizations like the La Crosse Tribune and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

There are still problems in the bill that need to be addressed before it is a finished product worthy of passage by the Legislature and the governor's signature. It'll likely be a while before this ethics reform effort's ultimate fate is known, but at least it's moving in the right direction.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Governor Calls Special Session On Ethics

Governor Jim Doyle yesterday called the Legislature into special session to act on recently agreed-to ethics enforcement reforms.

The special session convened today and the ethics reform bill was introduced. The Democracy Campaign has been informed that it is the intention of legislative leaders to hold public hearings on the proposed legislation within the next week, with floor debate and passage of the legislation in both houses of the Legislature tentatively scheduled for the week of January 29.

We received a copy of the bill yesterday and have been carefully reviewing its contents. This afternoon we issued a statement about some of bill's details that need fixing before it is passed by the Legislature and presented to the governor for his signature.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Big Price For Public Records

The State Elections Board now charges an exorbitant fee to copy certain public documents. The board's new fee applies to voter lists used by candidates to canvass and solicit prospective constituents and send newsletters and other mailings.

One state legislator told Madison's Isthmus newspaper voter lists collected from clerks in her district used to cost her a total of $75. Now available only through the Elections Board, her list will cost about $500. A copy of the entire statewide voter list will cost $12,500.

The board says the big fee - a flat $25 plus $5 for every 1,000 names - is needed to pay for the new $28 million statewide voter database - warts and all - and that some of the people who buy voter lists are going to sell them for a profit anyway.

WDC sees two problems with the high fee which we opposed when the board approved it in August. First, the fees are substantially higher than what it actually costs to copy the data. Second, the high fees are yet another competitive advantage for incumbents who raise substantially more money than challengers.

Unfortunately the board can get away with it - for now - because the Legislature exempted the voter list fee from the state Open Records Law. That law is one of the cornerstones of open government. It prohibits government from denying public access to records except for some personal, health and employment information, as well as records in active police investigations. More importantly in this case - the law also prohibits government from charging high fees for copies of public records.