Thursday, February 22, 2007

Deconstructing Frankenstein

Senate Democrats are rightly taking it on the chin for blocking efforts to put an end to the so-called "Frankenstein veto." Why on earth legislators wouldn't want to rein in the power of the governor and restore the balance of power between the two lawmaking branches of government is beyond me.

Trouble is, the solution that's been offered doesn't solve the problem. A proposed constitutional amendment by Republican Senator Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls does not kill Frankenstein.

Harsdorf's constitutional amendment would continue to allow governors to stitch together bits and pieces of an appropriation bill to create laws that the Legislature did not approve or authorize. It would expressly prohibit one way governors do that, but still leave plenty of room for mischief.

The proposed amendment says governors "may not create a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences of the enrolled bill." That means a governor could still delete one or more parts of a single sentence, such as the word "not," and stitch together the remnants to create a law with the opposite meaning of the one approved by the Legislature. A governor also would continue to be permitted to delete whole sentences or paragraphs or sections or subsections of bills and piece together what remains to fashion new laws that the Legislature did not approve, as long as care is taken not to create a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences.

The proposed amendment to our state constitution would not have prevented Governor Doyle from stitching together the remnants of a single sentence to increase the state's bonding authority for major highway projects from $140 million to $1 billion without the approval of the Legislature. That Frankenstein veto can be found in Section 683d of 2003 Wisconsin Act 33.

If the proposed amendment had been in effect during Tommy Thompson's tenure in office, it would not have prevented Governor Thompson from vetoing parts of a single sentence to spend $319 million per year that the Legislature did not authorize. This veto appears in Section 2135t of 1991 Wisconsin Act 39 and resulted in $1.2 billion in spending over four years for a school tax credit that the Legislature had decided to eliminate and replace with a different form of property tax relief.

The proposed amendment also would not have prevented Governor Thompson from vetoing parts of a single sentence to repeal the Property Tax Rent Credit. This little beauty in Section 2m of 1999 Wisconsin Act 10 cost taxpayers $234 million in higher income taxes before the tax credit was eventually restored.

Another time, Governor Thompson unilaterally increased the amount of sales tax collections that retailers were required to pay by using Frankenstein vetoes to reduce the amounts that could be deducted as "administration expenses" in Section 510 of 1991 Wisconsin Act 269. That veto increased revenues by something on the order of $25 million to $35 million. Harsdorf's amendment wouldn't have stopped that one either.

Governor Doyle used the same stitching technique that Thompson employed to unilaterally increase an agricultural chemical cleanup surcharge from 38 cents per ton to 83 cents per ton, while the Legislature had approved an increase to only 63 cents per ton. That veto can be found in Section 1745 of 2003 Wisconsin Act 33. Again, the proposed constitutional amendment would allow this Frankenstein to live.

Neither side – not those who oppose fixing the problem just because they belong to the same political party as the current governor who now wields this monstrous veto authority and not even those who support the proposed constitutional amendment that is advertised as a remedy – gets it. Neither group of legislators is doing what's best for the Legislature and the people its members represent or what's right for democracy.

Computer Crashes

The state is pulling the plug right and left on major computer projects. The latest casualty is a $28 million sales-tax tracking system for the state Department of Revenue.

Which inspired state Representative Sue Jeskewitz, a Menomonee Falls Republican, to remark: "No private business would spend $26 million or $30 million for a project that doesn't work."

Maybe, maybe not. But the state has managed to find more than a few private businesses that will gladly take tens of millions of the taxpayers' dollars without delivering a product that works. Like American Management Systems, now part of CGI Group. And Accenture.

Speaking of Accenture, don't be surprised if the state's contract with the company to develop a statewide voter registration system is the next big computer project to crash and burn. The arrangement is a disaster.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Passing 58 Million Bucks

Spending by special interest groups influencing Wisconsin lawmakers is in the news again, with the latest figures showing that more than $58 million was spent on lobbying during the 2005-2006 legislative session, up nearly 20% over the prior session.

News reports that blandly identify which interest groups spent the most leave casual readers, viewers and listeners wondering why they should care. Pointing out that they are ultimately picking up the tab might do the trick caring-wise. The $58 million and then some ends up being passed along to taxpayers without $200-an-hour lobbyists working for them when state officials hand out special interest tax breaks or budget pork or no-bid contracts.

In the press advisory reporting the record-breaking spending on influence peddling, the state Ethics Board tried reassuring citizens that the store is being minded. Ethics Board director Roth Judd took pains to remind us that "Wisconsin leads the nation in forbidding special interest groups from providing favors to elected officials."

Two pertinent facts make such happy talk ring just a bit hollow. First, Judd evidently does not consider the campaign contributions special interest groups can legally shower on lawmakers at any time – even while the state budget is being crafted, for crying out loud – a favor to those elected officials. Which begs the question: Exactly what kind of favor is more valuable to a politician these days than a campaign donation? Secondly, even if you overlook all that campaign money and buy what Judd is saying about Wisconsin forbidding interest groups from providing favors to elected officials, there's nothing preventing the elected officials from providing favors to the interest groups. It's that part of the transaction that hits the average taxpayer squarely in the pocketbook.

The other painfully apparent part of the story that is overlooked in the media accounts of lobbying spending is how the campaign donations go hand in hand with the tens of millions spent by the lobbying industry. Elected officials are addicted to the contributions from the special interests that pay all the hired guns to work the halls of the Capitol. Those campaign contributions are the reason elected officials have to listen to the lobbyists. If we didn't have an utterly broken campaign finance system and candidates didn't have to rely on special interest money to get elected and re-elected, the lobbying groups wouldn't be spending $58 million. They'd be wasting their money if they did.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Elections Board's Rathole Strategy

Just when you think the status of the state's computerized voter registration project can't get worse, it deteriorates further. Even though completion of the project already is more than a year overdue, the state Elections Board is now acknowledging that the new system still won't be fully operational for this spring's elections.

Elections Board officials are expressing hope that all the kinks in the new system will be worked out and all of its promised functions will be functioning by the presidential primary election in February 2008.

Believe it when you see it. Remember that when it first became clear the Elections Board was going to miss the January 1, 2006 deadline for completing the work, board officials expressed confidence that the new system would be up and working by the April 2006 elections. Those elections came and went without a finished product, and the board then targeted last fall's elections. Only limited features were in use for the November election, and those didn't exactly perform flawlessly.

This project has become the state election equivalent of the Iraq War. The question now is whether the Elections Board will ever admit that its rathole strategy is doomed to failure. The board is due to be dismantled and replaced by the new Government Accountability Board in six months. Between now and then, will the board fess up and acknowledge the disaster that this project has become? Will it seriously consider the mounting evidence that its private sector partner in crime Accenture is simply not up to the task of producing a workable statewide computerized voter registration system? Will the board do the right thing and declare Accenture in breach of contract and sue the company so that at least some of the taxpayer money that has been wasted can be recouped? Or will this dysfunctional and soon-to-be-defunct agency continue to throw good money after bad and then pass off the whole mess to the new board?

Paying Gold For Garbage

More than $32 million was spent electing a governor in Wisconsin in 2006. And spending in the state attorney general race topped $8.3 millionfive times more than was spent in the previous race in 2002. Apologists for the campaign arms race in Wisconsin elections like to claim that it's money well spent. Runaway spending is needed to ensure a robust debate on the issues and enable candidates to get their message about where they stand to the voters.

The smear campaigns that disfigured last fall's races for governor and attorney general were themselves the most effective counterargument to this nonsense. In the governor's race, both major party candidates and their special interest allies spent millions on ads saying the other guy was the bigger crook. Millions more were spent by both sides in the attorney general race claiming that their opponents would go easy on violent offenders, lacked concern for crime victims, were soft on illegal immigration and would let sexual predators roam free in neighborhoods.