Thursday, March 29, 2007

Phone Friends

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch and Representative Phil Montgomery have a lot in common, and as of late they have both become fast friends with AT&T.

AT&T badly wants legislative approval of a controversial proposal to let the state license cable and data providers instead of letting local communities continue to pick their cable provider. The phone giant wants to break into the cable market in Wisconsin and this proposal would let AT&T go wherever it wants much faster than having to deal with all those pesky local communities, one by one.

Montgomery is one the bill's lead sponsors and the measure must have Huebsch's OK to pass the Assembly. Huebsch and his Republican colleagues control the Assembly 52-47.

Turns out AT&T barely knew Montgomery and Huebsch existed until last year. From 1998 through 2005, AT&T employees or political action committees had contributed only $300 to Montgomery and $800 to Huebsch.

In 2006 when the proposal was being developed, AT&T contributed $2,250 to Montgomery's campaign and $1,225 to Huebsch, and a few months later out pops the bill AT&T wants.

It also turns out Montgomery's proposal is not exactly homegrown. It comes from a group called ALEC, which stands for American Legislative Exchange Council. This Washington-based conservative think tank is a bill mill, penning numerous anti-regulatory, anti-tax and pro-business proposals and encouraging state legislators around the country to offer them up at home.

And critics say the problems don't stop there. Like a lot of plans to deregulate or preempt local communities, consumer protections are weakened. Unlike now, the bill does not require advanced notice of rate increases or that customer bills are credited when service is interrupted for four hours or more. Customers also lose the right to have service repaired within 72 hours, among other things. Others say it would reduce or end locally made cable programs for kids and others, and the state could not deny a license to a company even if it looks like the provider could go belly up the next day.

Montgomery and other supporters say the bill is intended to spur competition and reduce the price of cable. Be that as it may, we're curious to see how often AT&T pops up on campaign finance reports filed later this year and early next year by the legislators who support the proposal.

And let's not forget about Democratic Governor Jim Doyle if this proposal passes the legislature and gets to him. Doyle says he has problems with the bill as is because of the diminished consumer protections. But Doyle has seen a lot of proposals he likes that take away power from local communities and give it to the state.

Doyle has received $36,157 in contributions since 1998 from employees and PACs of AT&T, one of his most generous corporate backers. In addition, AT&T was among seven companies that gave $25,000 each to help pay for Doyle's 2007 inaugural party.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Disappearing Act

A bill – pushed by the Democracy Campaign for years – making out-of-state political committees comply with the same campaign finance disclosure requirements as in-state committees was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor as 2005 Wisconsin Act 176 last March.

A year after this law was made it has been unmade, the Democracy Campaign has learned, wiped off the books by an "administrative decision" by the state Revisor of Statutes.

Here's what we've been told by legislative attorneys:

On the same day Act 176 became law, another bill – Assembly Bill 428 – was enacted as 2005 Wisconsin Act 177. That bill's purpose was to cleanse state law of the provisions of a sham campaign finance reform plan laced with a poison pill that was enacted in 2002 as part of a budget repair bill but was later struck down in court because the judge found the poison pill unconstitutional as expected.

The official story of the disclosure law's cruel fate is that the lawyers responsible for keeping our state statutes nice and tidy decided that Act 177 trumps Act 176, even though Act 176 reflects the will of the Legislature expressed in 2006 and Act 177 merely cleans up a mess created by the Legislature nearly four years earlier – a mess, by the way, that had nothing to do with making out-of-state donations more transparent.

That's the official story. We aren't so sure. We smell a rat.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

40,000 Versus 500

As a recent article in the trade publication Broadcast Engineering pointed out, consolidation of media ownership is changing the news gathering business and putting the squeeze on newsrooms. That is having a profound impact on the ability of the media to keep an eye on what's going on in state government.

There are currently only about 500 reporters covering state legislatures across the nation. There are roughly 40,000 registered lobbyists — five per legislator — seeking to influence government decisions at the state level.

The battle between private gain and the public interest is not a fair fight. When the mouthpieces of the private interest groups outnumber the eyes and ears of the general public by such an outlandish margin, is it any wonder these special interests are having their way with our elected state representatives?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Top Doyle Donor Indicted

Kenosha multimillionaire Dennis Troha, who made a fortune in the trucking industry before heading an effort to locate a casino in Kenosha and becoming Governor Jim Doyle's biggest financial supporter, was indicted by a federal grand jury yesterday on charges of illegally funneling contributions through family members to the governor's campaign and other political committees and then lying to the FBI about the scheme.

Troha's attorney told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Troha acknowledges furnishing funds to his children so they could make political contributions, but insists he did not direct them to donate to any particular candidate. That's a hard argument to sell when you look at the pattern of giving to Doyle by Troha family members. If they were all making independent decisions, then it's one hell of a series of coincidences that they all repeatedly decided to give to the same candidate on the same day and often in the exact same amount.

It's obvious what Troha was after. It's equally obvious why he'd think giving heavily to the governor might be a way to get what he wanted. What's more mysterious is why someone approaching retirement age who has publicly claimed to be worth more than $33 million would risk prompting the feds to start sniffing around by resorting to money laundering to get around the state's $10,000 limit on campaign contributions to a candidate for statewide office. After all, Wisconsin's campaign finance laws are in such disrepair that Troha could have exploited loopholes in the law to go as far above the $10,000 limit as his heart desired and his bank account permitted.

Troha appeared to figure this out, although too late to avoid scrutiny by the FBI and U.S. Attorney. He made two $50,000 contributions – the first on December 23, 2005 and the second on September 8, 2006 – to the Democratic Governors Association, a so-called "527" group, which in turn helped bankroll pro-Doyle electioneering by the shadowy Greater Wisconsin Committee. Around the time of those gifts to DGA, contributions directly to Doyle from Troha family members were pretty much drying up.

Troha and his wife also took advantage of another way to lavish more than $10,000 on the governor. They donated $25,000 to the governor's 2003 inaugural party and another $50,000 to help pay for 2007 inaugural festivities. Inaugural donations are not counted as campaign contributions.

This latest dismal episode in the soap opera of Wisconsin politics not only illustrates the lengths wealthy interests will go to buy elections and influence government officials, but also underscores how utterly broken our campaign finance system is.