Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Enemy Within

With the shape our country is in, I can't help but think we've been pretty lousy stewards of the rich inheritance we were given by those who came before us. What we are fixing to pass on to my 9-year-old son's generation is not the America I want him to inherit. It is damaged goods.

We all should have known better. It's been 30 years, but I still remember sitting in economics classes in college and on more than one occasion listening to professors say with a straight face that America's economy was depression-proof because of monetary and fiscal policy tools and regulatory protections that didn't exist when the country descended into the Great Depression.

Seemed to make sense at the time. But now their instruction seems flimsier with each passing day.

Those professors failed to account for the possibility that bought-and-paid-for politicians might one day tear down the post-Depression-era walls between banking, investment and insurance companies. And they seriously erred in placing such faith in the infallibility of the Fed and the public-spiritedness of the Congress and White House.

College professors aren't the only ones who should have known better. That goes for all of us.

We should have gotten to know Charles Ponzi better so we could recognize him when he came our way again. We didn't. He did return, this time by the name of Bernard Madoff. Despite 10 years' worth of warnings, Ponzi wasn't noticed until after Madoff made off with tens of billions of dollars of our money.

Hollywood warned us 20-some years ago with Gordon Gekko. Real life warned us with the likes of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. The warnings went unheeded.

We should have learned the lessons of Vietnam. Instead we idly watched most all the same mistakes repeated in Iraq. And then some.

Even the best and brightest among us – from college professors and high-ranking public officials to captains of industry and the media intelligentsia – are living proof of what a comic strip told us about ourselves over 35 years ago.

Extremely difficult days lie ahead. Yes, to a sometimes substantial degree we are victims of forces beyond our control. But we also are largely to blame for our fate.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Will Doyle Give The Money Back Now?

Embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's top campaign fundraiser, adviser and close friend Christopher Kelly made a $10,000 donation to Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle back in June 2006. It was well known at the time that Kelly was under federal investigation. Still, Doyle accepted the contribution. Even after Kelly was indicted last December on tax fraud charges, Doyle kept the money. When it was reported in February that Kelly received a loan from an Iraqi billionaire who had been convicted of fraud in France, Doyle still held on tight to Kelly's donation.

It was reported yesterday that a court filing shows Kelly is set to plead guilty in his federal corruption case.

Now that Kelly will be convicted of a federal crime, will Governor Doyle finally part company with this tainted cash?

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Real Scandal

Wisconsin has been frequently visited by political scandal in recent years, and that's one good reason to take the advice the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gave the other day and not get too smug about what's happening in Illinois.

Besides, the political crime ring that brought federal prosecutors to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's doorstep has tentacles that reach into Wisconsin. Nick Hurtgen, a former top aide to Tommy Thompson, is a central figure in the Illinois drama. He was indicted for his alleged role in a kickback scheme, then a judge dropped him from the case before he was reindicted late last year. Hurtgen has remained active in Wisconsin, making sizable donations to Mark Green's failed bid to become governor and maintaining close ties to another Republican known to covet the governor's office, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. But Hurtgen played both sides in Wisconsin, having helped organize a 2002 fundraiser in Chicago for Jim Doyle.

A check of the Democracy Campaign's database of campaign donors shows that another lead actor in the Illinois corruption scandal and indicted Friend of Rod, Blagojevich's close adviser and top fundraiser Christopher Kelly, gave Doyle $10,000 in June 2006. It was public knowledge that Kelly was under federal investigation at the time he made the donation. Even after he was indicted, Doyle kept the money. For more on Kelly, go here, here and here.

Such links alone ought to be enough to keep in check any superiority complex Wisconsin might have. But the biggest reason we cannot afford to be smug is that the real scandal is so much more vast than what the U.S. Attorney's office has on Rod Blagojevich.

The real scandal is what's perfectly legal in our political system.

It was perfectly legal for the investment bankers and insurance execs and real estate tycoons to spend over $430 million buying federal office holders in the 2008 election cycle alone. These interests have spent well over $2 billion to sew up Washington since 1990. What they bought was lax oversight and the freedom to roll the dice with other people's life savings. And a bailout when it all went sour. Even as tanking companies like AIG and Freddie Mac and Ford Motor Company were fixing to ask the feds to rescue them from themselves, they were showering money on both major parties to pick up the tab for the national conventions.

The same thing is perfectly legal at the state level in Wisconsin, albeit on a proportionately smaller scale.

That's why we cannot afford to be complacent. And why we cannot allow reform to be a scandal-driven undertaking.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A No-Tax Pledge That Costs Too Much

Politicians are fond of saying that taxpayers don't want their money used to pay for political campaigns. Actually, they do.

A national bipartisan poll done by two top D.C.-area political polling firms – one that caters almost exclusively to Republicans and corporate interests and the other that works primarily for Democrats, labor unions and progressive advocacy groups – shows strong public support for publicly financed elections. Support for taxpayer-funded elections is high in every region of the country, and actually is slightly higher in the conservative South than it is in the more liberal Northeast and Midwest. Support cuts across gender and age lines, not to mention political party affiliation. More than two-thirds of Democrats back public financing, but an even higher percentage of Republicans do too.

Over two-thirds of voters (69%) believe we need changes to the way elections are financed, and the polling provides a strong clue as to why. An overwhelming majority of voters make the connection between large campaign donations and the lack of progress in dealing with the nation's most pressing problems. A supermajority (77%) of those surveyed agreed with the statement “I am worried that large political contributions will prevent Congress from tackling the important issues facing America today, like the economic crisis, rising energy costs, reforming health care, and global warming.”

And a large majority see big campaign contributions as a major cause of the economic meltdown. Over two-thirds (70%) of voters agree with the statement “Large campaign contributions from the banking industry to members of Congress have resulted in lax oversight and have been a major factor in causing the current financial crisis on Wall Street.”

In the weeks and months to come, we'll undoubtedly hear politicians of just about every stripe claim that we can't afford public financing of election campaigns in these tough economic times. The people these politicians are supposed to be representing have a distinctly different view, as this latest poll shows. From coast to coast, from young to old, from left to right, Americans have reached the conclusion that we cannot afford the way political campaigns are financed today. The cost to our country is far too high.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Gladstonewalling Justice

Former state Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen was originally charged with felony misconduct in public office on October 18, 2002. More than six years now have passed – 2,234 days to be exact – and Jensen's legal fate still has not been decided.

Jensen went on trial once already and was convicted. That was back in March 2006. He appealed his conviction and was granted a new trial on a legal technicality. That was in November 2007. A date for the new trial still has not been set.

One-time British prime minister William Gladstone died in 1898, but nevertheless knew all you need to know about the Jensen case.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Reader's Digest Version Of Law School Forum

Last Friday, we posted a 56-minute video of the discussion at last week's Justice, Money and Politics forum at the UW Law School. If you don't have an hour to spare to watch the whole thing, you can watch this 7-minute version.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Justice, Money and Politics on YouTube

Tuesday night's forum at the UW Law School featured state Supreme Court Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Patrick Crooks, Wisconsin State Journal editorial page editor Scott Milfred and yours truly.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Spitting Out The Multivitamin

UW Professor Ken Goldstein is fond of telling anyone who will listen that negative political ads are good for you, going so far as to call them a "multivitamin for the democratic process."

If there's even a whiff of aptness in that analogy, then recent elections like Wisconsin's last two state Supreme Court races proved one thing conclusively. It's possible to overdose on vitamins.

In this fall's elections, a bunch of phony front groups and party satellites held voters' noses and tried pilling us again, but the public wasn't swallowing what they were trying to force down our throats. One of the big stories of the 2008 election was the public's repudiation of gutter politics. Smear campaigns failed, as the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram pointed out, from the national stage to the local scene.

Now that's something worth celebrating.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Change We Need?

If Barack Obama's going to change Washington, this was a strange way to start.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Gentler, Bipartisan WMC? Hmmmmmm.

Some have wondered whether Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce might change its negative electioneering activities after the public drubbing it has taken for its nasty political ads, particularly in the 2007 and 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court races.

Well here's an interesting item. The state's largest business group has sponsored mailings in support of two incumbent Democratic senators who rarely support WMC. Senators Dave Hansen of Green Bay and Robert Wirch of Kenosha each received a 21 percent rating - on a scale of zero to 100 percent - on WMC's legislative report card in September. The report card rated legislators on how they voted on proposals WMC supported and opposed in 2007-08.

Hansen and Wirch got the low ratings because the pair voted the way WMC liked on only three of 14 bills on WMC's agenda.

But maybe this has less to do with turning over a new leaf and more to do with reading the political tea leaves. Wirch and Hansen are safe, token endorsements in two ways. Both Democratic incumbents appear likely to win in November and the Democrats do not appear likely to lose control of the state Senate.

What It Means To Be Nonpartisan

"Nonpartisan, my ass."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard those words over the last 10 years, I'd be a rich man.

Who says it depends on whose ox we've gored most recently. As Jason Stein of the Wisconsin State Journal observed back in 2006, it's amazing how partisan operatives can call the Democracy Campaign nothing but a political puppet one minute and then a respected nonpartisan watchdog the next.

To partisans, we're nonpartisan only when it benefits their side.

Ah, politics.

To anyone outside of the political class, though, nonpartisanship means a little bit more. Let me start with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean you're agnostic on public policy or, in the Democracy Campaign's case, neutral on what's best for the health of the democratic process in Wisconsin. We have an agenda. It's just that putting politicians of a particular stripe in power is not part of that agenda.

Being nonpartisan means not endorsing candidates. It means not having a political action committee for making donations in partisan races. It means not sponsoring phony "issue ads" to get favored candidates elected, or engaging in any form of campaigning aimed at influencing the outcome of elections. It means not having any favorite candidates.

For us, nonpartisanship means blowing the whistle when we see wrongdoing, no matter what party the offender belongs to. That doesn't mean the whistle has to be blown half the time on one side and half the time on the other. It means it has to be blown whenever there is serious wrongdoing. If it happens all those being flagged are Republicans, so be it. Or all Democrats. The chips will fall where they may. As it turns out, plenty of chips have fallen on both sides of the fence.

Democracy is party politics, but it also is much more than that. It is a living thing, and like all living things, it will die if not cared for. Whether the Democracy Campaign has been faithful in aspiring to be that caretaker – and faithful in its nonpartisanship – is for many to debate, and many already have decided.

What I am certain of is that there is a place for nonpartisanship in politics. And it is possible and indeed essential that some practice it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Democracy Or Republic?

A letter I received today from a Lake Mills resident touched on a subject that has been debated since the founding of our country and expressed a view I often hear from people who are not fond of the Democracy Campaign's work. The letter started on a positive note, saying "I like what I see and hear of your doing to get big, often crooked, money out of politics. Badly needed."

The writer continued: "But I am of the belief that we are a republic, NOT a democracy." He went on to say I seem to worship "the many" and voiced worry about what he called the "crowd culture."

Personally, I don't believe a republic and a democracy are mutually exclusive. Put another way, it is possible to be both a republic and a democracy, and I believe that is what America was intended to be.

It's worth remembering that when Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was famously asked: "Well, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?" He was not asked: "Well, what have we got – a republic or a democracy?" A republic is the opposite of a monarchy, not the opposite of a democracy.

After reading the letter, I checked a few dictionaries. One defined a republic as "a state or country that is not led by a hereditary monarch but in which the people have impact on its government.” The word comes from the Latin res publica, which translates as "public thing" or "public matter." Another dictionary defines a republic as "a state in which the sovereign power resides in the whole body of the people, and is exercised by representatives elected by them; a commonwealth." Yet another defines it as "a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them."

The term "democracy," on the other hand, is alternatively defined as "government by the people" and "rule of the majority" and "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." Under these definitions, it is obvious that what the founders chose to create could be described as either a republic or a representative democracy or both.

It's particularly important to remember that at the time of our nation's creation, the whole idea of a "democracy" and a "republic" was radical and frightening and hard to imagine actually working, which explains why the Federalist Papers were published anonymously. The Federalist Papers made it quite clear that most of the founders wanted America to be a democracy. But many also feared the possibility that the American experiment could turn into mob rule. Some founders, such as Alexander Hamilton, advocated for a strong central government and even a monarch, with George Washington as king (something Washington resisted with great passion).

It is both safe and fair to say that in the end the consensus was that America should not become a direct democracy, but rather should have a representative form of government.

The Founding Fathers were revolutionaries and were taking a great leap of faith with no direct experience to confirm their faith that a democratic government could be established on a large scale. They had seen democracy work well in small populations, like the Greek city-states, but had no idea whether such a model could be extended to a new institution governing what was at the time a massive population.

The genius of the founders' creation was how they balanced the idea that the will of the people shall be the law of the land with strong protections for individual rights. Clearly, there are certain rights and laws that should not be disregarded at the whim of the majority. The system of checks and balances that is central to the design of American democracy was created not only to prevent any individual or any branch of government from gaining excessive power, but also to prevent a tyranny of the majority and to protect the rights of those in the minority.

I stand accused of worshipping "the many," as if democracy is a dirty word. Actually, I worship the delicate balancing act that the Founding Fathers performed to give us a system that is both a republic and a democracy. I do believe people should matter more than money in politics, and I am deeply wary of privilege – especially the political privilege that accompanies great wealth. I am concerned that too much power has been concentrated in too few hands in recent years.

That's why the Democracy Campaign and I are working to make our system more truly democratic. And more authentically republican.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Swiss Banks Of Wisconsin Politics

Swiss banks are known the world over as the place to stash ill-gotten gains, keep questionable finances one step ahead of the law or otherwise stockpile riches with no questions asked.

So-called "issue ad" groups are their political equivalent.

We've been updating the Hijacking Election 2008 section of our web site pretty much daily as we learn of new under-the-radar smear campaigns in state legislative races being run by groups like All Children Matter and Building a Stronger Wisconsin. They are creating a traffic jam on the low road, stuffing mailboxes and in some cases filling the airwaves in key battleground districts with paint-by-numbers attacks. All Children Matter assails Democratic candidates, claiming they all support health care benefits for illegal aliens. Building a Stronger Wisconsin attacks Republicans on the grounds that they don't care about school kids and rape victims.

The money raised to fund these smears is not disclosed to the public. Voters have been kept entirely in the dark about who's paying for this gutter campaigning.

Four groups – Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Greater Wisconsin Committee, Club for Growth and the Coalition for America's Families – raised and spent two out of every three dollars in the last two state Supreme Court elections and accounted for nearly 90 percent of the television advertising in this year's race.

Voters have been given no clue about where the money came from to pay for all those ads either.

Electioneering by trade associations, lobbying organizations and party front groups abounds in state elections now, and who pays the bills is a secret.

It's secret because of a gaping loophole allowing special interest groups to operate outside the laws requiring disclosure and limiting political contributions. To operate like Swiss banks. And in so doing, to effectively take the "r" out of free speech.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Too Close To Be Legal?

State law says independent expenditure groups cannot cooperate or coordinate with political campaigns or candidates they support on outside electioneering activities like mailings, broadcast or newspaper ads and automated phone calls.

So is it possible to abide by that law when the candidate is on the board of directors of the organization doing the campaigning on his behalf?

That's the scenario involving the Fond du Lac Association of Commerce's political action committee which filed documents September 29 saying it intends to make independent expenditures on behalf of 18th Senate District Republican candidate Randy Hopper who is also on the group's board of directors, according to its website and Hopper's campaign website.

In addition to that cozy relationship, the Young Professionals of Fond du Lac, a division of the chamber of commerce, is hosting an October 16 forum featuring Hopper and Democratic challenger Jessica King to air their views.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bailout Vote Followed The Money

Lost amidst all of the post-game punditry and Monday-morning quarterbacking following yesterday's vote in the House of Representatives on the financial bailout plan was any mention of the fact that House members from both parties who voted for the bailout have received a lot more money from the finance, insurance and real estate industries than those who voted against it.

So, was yesterday's rejection of the rescue plan evidence that House members heard loud and clear from rank-and-file voters that any bailout should be a good deal for average working folks and not just a sweet deal for Wall Street? Or was it just a fundraising ploy, a pointed message to the industries at the center of the financial collapse that they had better be a little more – OK, a lot more – generous to those House members who got less help with their elections in the past?

Much remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. It's hard to imagine yesterday's vote being the final word on the bailout. The high rollers at the heart of this mess have pumped $340 million into federal campaigns for the 2008 election alone and $2 billion since 1990. The big question is not whether they will get something approximating the $700 billion return on their "investment" that they are begging for, but rather what if any strings will be attached.

It's all about the strings now, if you ask me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

One Or The Other

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1916 to 1939

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Who Owns Whom In The Ownership Society

What's happening on Wall Street and what's about to happen to all of us taxpayers is more than the latest dramatic failure of our government to carry out its proper responsibilities. The extent of the negligence dwarfs even the before and after of Hurricane Katrina, which is really saying something. But this is more than another case of people in high places sleeping at the switch.

The turmoil in U.S. financial markets is more than an indictment of the criminal theology of deregulation and more deregulation. Yes, we have the economic anarchists to thank for all the collapsing financial institutions and the growing panic in the stock market. Who is more to blame, the majority in our society who bought unbridled greed as a governing philosophy, or those who made the sale? Does it really matter? There's been plenty of stupidity to go around.

And the reservoir is far from dry. The very people who peddled the snake oil now want a government bailout. The no-government-is-good-government crowd is allergic to paying taxes, but expects the taxpayer to rush to the rescue when things fall apart. Privatized profits and socialized losses. Sweet deal. What blows the mind is how quickly and easily such deals are consummated in Washington.

It is here the root of the crisis is found. What we have is not just an excess of greed or a lack of oversight. We have an absence of democracy.

The reason Wall Street was never reined in and now will be bailed out is that the officials who decide things in Washington are owned by those they are supposed to regulate. Need persuading? Follow the money.

The finance, insurance and real estate industries that are at the heart of the scandal have given nearly $340 million in campaign contributions at the national level in the 2008 election cycle alone. Half of it to Democrats and half to Republicans.

Washington insiders are fond of saying insurance giant AIG is "too big to fail" when justifying the company's bailout. Actually, its campaign donations are too large to ignore.

Look at the list of top all-time donors to federal campaigns. Weighing in at number four is none other than Goldman Sachs, one of Wall Street's most prestigious investment banks. Look at the so-called "bundlers" who raise the really big money for both presidential campaigns. The lists for both major party candidates are littered with investment bankers and bigwigs from the insurance and real estate industries.

And don't forget Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They've got millions invested in Washington's elite.

So this is what is meant when we're told they're building an "ownership society."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Our Very Own Katherine Harris

J.B. Van Hollen seems intent on becoming Katherine Harris. Unlike Harris's Florida, Wisconsin does not allow partisan officials to run our elections. We entrust that task to a politically independent agency under the direction of a nonpartisan board of retired judges.

That arrangement is obviously not to the liking of Van Hollen, who is the highest ranking elected Republican in the state and co-chairman of John McCain's presidential campaign in Wisconsin. He is suing the agency and the former judges who head it in an effort to get people kicked off the voter rolls. He insists it's necessary to protect us against voter fraud. He is undeterred by the fact that voter fraud is more rare than a financially stable investment bank. He is even less sensitive to the considerable collateral damage his crusade will do.

In his apparent zeal to emulate Katherine the Great, Van Hollen hardly waited for the ink on his lawsuit to dry before announcing that he is forming an "election fraud task force." It's hard to believe many voters will put much trust in a task force headed by someone so heavily invested in making sure John McCain is the next president.

Maybe Van Hollen doesn't care about that. Or maybe he's green with envy that Katherine Harris's deeds were the stuff of a made-for-HBO movie.

Who would play J.B. Van Hollen? I nominate Will Farrell.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Van Hollen's Lawsuit: A Pander Or A Hoax?

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's decision to pick nits in the name of upholding the Orwellian-named federal Help America Vote Act and sue the Government Accountability Board over the way the agency is implementing the state's new computerized voter registration system has been roundly and rightly panned by the media. But it was Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy who got to the root of the matter.

Murphy assumes Van Hollen is smart enough to know the lawsuit has no sound legal basis and is going nowhere. He concludes Van Hollen must have filed it just to shore up his political base.

That's certainly a plausible if not overly charitable theory. If Murphy's wrong and the lawsuit is not just political pandering, then it is a solution in search of a problem. If Van Hollen honestly believes his action has legal merit, then he is tipping his and his party's hand on what their favorite bugaboo – voter fraud – really amounts to.

Discrepancies between databases. Clerical and typographical errors. Missing middle initials. Oh. My. God.

Whether the attorney general's lawsuit was inspired by political vanity or some darker motive surely will be the subject of speculation for some time to come. But because of the inherent silliness of the action, Van Hollen has unwittingly made people like Anna Larson the face of the supposed problem of voter fraud. The white-haired Larson is 82 years old and can't remember failing to vote in an election.

You see, the computers say Anna Larson is registered to vote in both Madison and Waukesha. An act of voter fraud waiting to happen. The new system flagged Larson and she was knocked off the rolls.

It turns out another woman with the exact same name and same birth date, a rare coincidence to be sure, had just registered in Waukesha. The voter database that is the offspring of the Help America Vote Act merges registrants with the same name and birth date, and the person who stays on the rolls is the person who last registered. It wasn't much of a help to Anna Larson.

In the exceedingly unlikely event that Van Hollen's lawsuit is successful, two things will surely happen. It will become even more apparent that the problem of voter fraud is itself a fraud. And to learn what we already knew, there will have to be many more victims like Anna Larson.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Money For Nothing

Mike Ivey wrote an excellent piece this week about how Wisconsin is handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in business subsidies every year without bothering to check if they pay off. A 2005 Democracy Campaign review of over 5,100 state Commerce Department grants and subsidized loans found the same problem.

We found no evidence of site visits or audits by the state to determine if the state assistance was being used as promised or that the recipients had created or retained the number of jobs promised in their agreements. In four cases, recipients did not even file the required self-evaluations to show the progress of their projects. Five projects Commerce signed off on violated the department's own program guidelines requiring the assistance to be targeted to economically distressed areas, or where unemployment and poverty rates were higher than the statewide average.

To make matters even worse, the public is kept in the dark about the state's dealings with private business. Ivey cites a 2007 evaluation of state disclosure of business subsidies, procurement contracts and lobbying activities by the national watchdog group Good Jobs First. The group gave Wisconsin an "F" for disclosure of economic development subsidies and a "C+" for disclosure of state procurement contracts that businesses receive.

There was another dimension to our 2005 report that was not touched on in either Ivey's article or the Good Jobs First evaluation. We found that those who made campaign contributions received eight times more state assistance in the form of grants, subsidized loans and tax breaks than non-contributors. This finding mirrored what a University of Michigan researcher found in a January 2003 review of major state construction and road building contracts. The value of contracts awarded during the 1990s to contractors who contributed to then-Governor Tommy Thompson's campaign averaged $20 million while the average value of contracts awarded to non-contributors was $870,000.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

'Poisonous Swill'

Read this from the departing chancellor of Wisconsin's flagship university. He starts by saying "Wisconsin has lost its way." He goes on to say "the hyper-partisan political environment at the state capitol is toxic" and the state's "politics has become a poisonous swill."

And he was just getting warmed up.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lagging Behind Corrupticut

A recent New York Times editorial highlighted the fact that Connecticut is the latest state to put in place sweeping campaign finance reforms featuring full public financing of state elections. This is the first year the state that became known as "Corrupticut" is operating under the new system and, as the Times pointed out, early signs are very encouraging.

Connecticut's reform was modeled after the highly successful systems in Arizona and Maine. Maine has been publicly financing its state elections since 2000 and electoral competition has spiked. More people are running for public office, including significantly more women, and state legislative races are now five times less likely to be uncontested.

Connecticut took action after corruption scandals resulted in a former governor, a state senator and two mayors going to prison. In stark contrast, Wisconsin has so far failed to act even after six powerful former legislators were paraded into courtrooms and, in several of the cases, eventually were put behind bars for criminal misconduct in public office.

Wisconsin used to lead the nation. We were known far and wide for public policy innovation, not to mention open and honest government. Now when it comes to cleaning up growing political corruption, even the likes of lowly "Corrupticut" are beating us to the punch.

This is a telling measure of just how miserably our state leaders have failed as stewards of our democracy.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Shortcut To Redemption

Just back from a week's vacation in the northwoods. . . . Didn't see much news while I was away, but I did hear that WISC-TV has hired former state Senate leader and convicted felon Chuck Chvala to be a political commentator. WISC's station manager explained his decision to bring Chvala aboard by saying "I'm one of those that believe in redemption."

I believe in redemption too. But the road to redemption runs through a place called remorse. To this day, Chvala hasn't shown any. He has never admitted that he stole from the state's taxpayers to fund an effort to rig elections. And he has never apologized to the people of Wisconsin for his crimes against democracy.

One of Chvala's first commentaries was titled "Managing a Flip-Flop." WISC should have insisted it be titled "I screwed up royally, here's all the things I did wrong, and I am sorry for all the harm I have done." Or better yet, the station should have waited for Chvala to achieve remorse before they gave him a shot at redemption.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Keeping The Web Untangled

A blow was struck today for freedom, innovation and democracy on the Internet. A little over an hour ago, the Federal Communications Commission voted to punish Comcast for violating Net Neutrality and interfering with its customers' right to do what they want on the Internet.

While this is a giant leap for the FCC, it is but one small step in the fight to keep the Internet free and open. There's still much to be done. Go here and do it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Television-Political Complex

Nearly a half-century ago, America was warned of a symbiotic relationship that put our democratic society at great risk. That threat is with us still, but it has been joined by another symbiosis that poses every bit as much danger to our system of government.

The Chicago Tribune today published an article about the arms race in judicial campaigns and the threat it poses to courts in Wisconsin and other states across the country. But it was a columnist in a much smaller paper, the San Jose Mercury News, who put his finger on what's at the root of the problem.

Politicians nowadays are little more than collection agents for the TV stations. They ceaselessly dial for dollars – and surround themselves with a stable of handlers and consultants who assist them in the endeavor – in order to buy air time that is the crack cocaine of modern politics. Those supplying the cash want something in return, and get it time and again. The TV stations then provide the fix the political junkies crave, peddling their dope – often at a hefty premium – and profiting handsomely. And, oh yes, as the Mercury News columnist points out, they never air stories telling the American people about how it all works and what it's doing to our country.

The politicians win. The big special interest donors win. The TV industry wins. The average taxpaying citizen loses. Democracy dies a little with each transaction. So does America.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Blaming The Police For Crime

In a less politically correct time, people like Bill Lueders were known as newspapermen. Bill's latest column, "For the love of newspapers," caught my eye. It's quite possible that the business model upon which the newspaper industry was built has fallen apart and can't be pieced back together. But Bill is right . . . God help us if we don't invent a new business model or otherwise fight for the survival of the news business.

It is hard to imagine how democracy works without a free and tenacious press. That "press" does not necessarily have to be ink on newsprint, but it absolutely has to be more than entertainment clothed in the day's events. It has to be more than TV, talk radio and the blogosphere.

Just as dissent is the highest form of patriotism, relentless scrutiny of government is the greatest service to democracy. But there is a growing school of thought on the left that criticism of public officials and government is destructive. The line of thinking goes like this: Ever since the Reagan presidency (although some date it back to Goldwater), the right has battered government and has systematically worked to turn the American people against it. Against this backdrop, journalists and whistle blowers who call attention to wrongdoing by politicians or expose government corruption are now bizarrely seen as being in league with right-wingers who, as Grover Norquist summed up, want to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

What a load of crap.

First of all, when Ronald Reagan famously quipped that "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help,'" he was hardly a pioneer. Nor did it turn out that he was sincere. Reagan's record shows a sizable gap between his words and deeds. He did little to shrink government's girth. Federal spending as a percent of Gross Domestic Product actually was considerably lower under Clinton. Reagan's innovation was legitimizing the practice of spending like a drunken sailor while cutting taxes and running up huge debt.

In any case, Reagan did not invent or manufacture anti-government sentiment. Nor did Goldwater, for that matter. They merely recognized a prominent feature of the American political culture and exploited it, Reagan more successfully than Goldwater. But then Bill Proxmire, a Democrat, became a legend in Wisconsin politics mining the same terrain.

Proxmire understood the same thing Reagan did. A strong individualist streak runs through Americans. The well-defined sense of the commons that Europeans possess is missing here. Maybe it's because the United States are the offspring of rebellion, born from defiance of a king. Maybe it's because of the kind of people who were drawn to exploring the vast American frontier. Who knows. What's clear is that we're hard-wired to distrust government.

Trying to make Americans love or even like government is a fool's mission. It's like trying to make Yankee fans love the Red Sox. But hey, if the Red Sox fall out of contention and the Yankees are locked in a close race with, say, the Tampa Bay Rays, you think Yankee fans aren't going to root like crazy for the Sox to beat the Rays? They won't do it because they love the Red Sox, they'll do it because they need the Red Sox. Americans are like that about government. When times are tough and our backs are against the wall, government can come in pretty handy. What's called the "Greatest Generation" is the product of just such experience. But even the trauma of the Great Depression and the second world war could not permanently extinguish the strong sense of individualism that underlies the widespread wariness toward government.

Building trust of and support for government by being less vigilant and less vociferous critics of government is similarly a fool's mission. If building a "government is good" movement depends on looking the other way when political corruption is visible or excusing government foul-ups, then such a movement is doomed before it begins.

There's only one way to boost public confidence in government: Make it work better.

And to make it work better, there's one ingredient that surely needs to be in the recipe: Make sure government officials know their every move is being watched.

Which is why we need newspapers, or something that is their equal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Money Can't Buy You Love, But...

. . . apparently $2 million can buy you a favorable court ruling.

And $4,900 in campaign contributions to the boss sure seems to help get some obvious professional shortcomings overlooked.

Even smaller amounts come in handy when you're trying to buy votes. Oops, not so fast.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Umpire Strikes Back

Epic's Judy Faulkner threw a high hard one. Behind the plate, UW's Howard Schweber ruled it a brushback pitch and issued a stern warning. No one from Epic's dugout came out to protest, but I shouted from the stands that Schweber was out of his mind.

The ump wasn't taking it lying down. He removed his mask and hollered back, not only at me but also others in the cheap seats who didn't agree with his call.

In a Wisconsin State Journal column, Professor Schweber accused Epic of bullying "small businesses," using its "economic power to coerce vendors." Sorry, doc, but the targets of Epic's boycott are hardly small businesses. They are huge corporations that have a seat on the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce board of directors. Companies like J.P. Cullen, one of the nation's 400 largest construction companies. And M&I Corporation, one of the 50 biggest bank holding companies in the entire U.S.

In his column in The Capital Times, Dr. Schweber concentrated on making a distinction between primary and secondary boycotts and called the type of action Epic is engaging in an example of a secondary boycott that "may be illegal."

There are two problems with this argument. First, the term secondary boycott has a very specific legal meaning in a labor relations context and such an action can indeed be illegal under U.S. law. So why is Professor Schweber using such a loaded term out of context? Is he accusing Epic of breaking the law, or isn't he? After a prolonged e-mail exchange with Dr. Schweber, I am still not completely sure but I am inclined to believe he is not. He has publicly called Epic's action unethical and even told The Associated Press that it "is perilously close to a type of illegal boycott that typically arises in labor disputes." That is perilously close to defamation in light of his answer when I directly asked him if Epic's action is illegal. He declined to give a straight answer but rather would only say "whether Congress has gotten around to criminalizing something does not usually determine whether I consider it to be ethical."

I take that to mean that Professor Schweber is using the term secondary boycott loosely, applying a more generic meaning rather than a strict legal one. The Law Encyclopedia offers such a generic definition: "A group's refusal to work for, purchase from, or handle the products of a business with which the group has no dispute." Done, presumably, in an "an attempt to influence the actions of one business by exerting pressure on another business."

If this definition is valid, then this raises the second problem with Schweber's argument. Epic is not refusing to deal with companies with which it has no dispute. Epic has a very real bone to pick with companies like J.P. Cullen and M&I because their leaders sit on WMC's board and set policy for the organization. And as board members these companies' leaders ultimately authorized the election campaign tactics that Epic's leadership team finds so repugnant.

After further review, I still think the umpire blew the call.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Great Divide

The latest polling done by a national survey research firm for the Midwest Democracy Network unmistakably shows that Wisconsin residents believe the state is on the wrong track and elected officials can't be trusted to do the right thing. More than anything, the poll shows people want change and they strongly support reform.

State residents want stronger disclosure and right-to-know laws so they can see what their government and the special interests that control it are up to. They want lobbyists put on a shorter leash. They don't want politicians to draw the districts they run in, but they do want tougher campaign finance laws and tighter limits on campaign contributions. And they want publicly financed elections, strongly believing that government would work better if their taxes paid for election campaigns instead of donations from wealthy special interests.

The fact that their own elected representatives steadfastly refuse to give them what they clearly want explains plenty about why most Wisconsinites believe state officials can't be trusted to do what's right.

The Midwest Democracy Network poll is not the first to detect this disconnect between citizens and the people they've elected to represent them. The conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has found the same thing. So has the St. Norbert College Survey Center in its polling for Wisconsin Public Radio. The University of Wisconsin Survey Center's Badger Poll echoes the findings of these other polls.

This is why people like David Sirota are saying conditions are ripe for a popular revolt.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hating What Made You

"Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now fulfill your destiny. . . ." – Emperor Palpatine to young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode VI.

When Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is challenged to defend its obvious aim to engineer a hostile takeover of the state Supreme Court, WMC's mouthpieces say time and again that they are trying to rid Wisconsin of "activist judges."


As Dave Zweifel pointed out today, WMC owes its power to one of the great acts of judicial activism in American history. The 1886 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Zweifel refers to is a subject the Democracy Campaign has addressed a time or two.

The irony is surreal. WMC has exploited the 19th Century handiwork of "activist judges" to wage what it insists is a war on "activist judges." And the war doesn't appear to be over. WMC clearly has its sights set on the next high court election when Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson will be up for re-election because, as WMC spokesman Jim Pugh told Zweifel, Abrahamson is more "activist" than the group's last target, Louis Butler.

That is code for "judge who doesn't rule the way we want." And what WMC wants is judges who will side with corporations over consumers in product liability cases and who will favor business over individuals in tax cases.

What we're dealing with here is part transparent dishonesty about the true motives behind the assault on our system of justice and part naked hypocrisy in the form of a crusade made possible by the very thing it aims to destroy. Both show how the Dark Side of the Force is very much alive and thriving in Wisconsin politics.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Good Professor's Epic Blunder

After Epic Systems decided to pull its business from any vendor with ties to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, it was to be expected that someone would proclaim Epic's action un-American or un-something or other.

What was unexpected is that such an unthinking view would be expressed by a professor at a major university. Howard Schweber, a professor of law and political science at UW-Madison, took exception to what he called Epic's "secondary boycott" of companies that support WMC. Professor Schweber told the Wisconsin State Journal, "putting pressure on a person or business not to associate with another person or business is ethically dubious in my mind. If people have the power to coerce others to remain silent or change their views, that's a threat to personal liberty."

Ethically dubious? How's that? And how does Epic choosing which companies it wants to do business with constitute a "threat to personal liberty?"

Aside from Epic being totally within its rights, has Professor Schweber ever heard of the Montgomery bus boycott? Does he believe Rosa Parks was "ethically dubious" or a "threat to personal liberty" when she refused to give up her seat? Was the boycott that Dr. Martin Luther King and his allies organized soon thereafter unethical? Most Americans don't seem to think so, because there's a national holiday named for King, for crying out loud.

How is Epic's economic noncooperation ethically different than the tactics Mohandas Gandhi and his followers employed to end British rule and win India her independence? For his efforts, Gandhi came to be known as the Mahatma, or "Great Soul." Not the kind of nickname normally given to the ethically challenged.

King and Gandhi were hardly the first to use economic leverage to advance a cause. Ever hear of the Boston Tea Party? Weren't the colonists coercing the British to change tax and trade policies?

Does Professor Schweber teach his students that strikes are unethical? How about trade embargoes or other economic sanctions one nation (often ours) imposes on another whose behavior is deemed unacceptable? Sure they're staple tools of foreign policy, but applying Dr. Schweber's Epic test, aren't they over the line ethically?

Far from a sin, Epic's actions put the company in very good company. If there is a discernible shortcoming, it is this: WMC does not have clean hands when it comes to elections in this state, but neither do many others. It's not that Epic is doing anything wrong. And it's not that WMC doesn't have it coming. It's just insufficient. Many more deserve the Epic treatment.

Friday, June 27, 2008

WMC Gets Blowback On Supreme Court Hijacking

The efforts of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to take over Wisconsin's Supreme Court are sending shock waves through the state's business community. Some of the biggest ripples just came from what is not only one of Wisconsin's fastest growing employers but also a pillar in the state's new economy. And now one of the state's leading construction firms has taken notice and has reacted.

It's Newton's third law, applied to politics.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Obama Opts Out

As pretty much everyone knows by now, Barack Obama announced yesterday that he will forego public financing for the general election. What everyone may not know is that it was in response to a Midwest Democracy Network candidate questionnaire that Obama originally committed himself to participating in the public financing system.

Obama is right about one thing. The system is broken and badly needs fixing. But he knew that when he pledged to publicly finance his general election campaign. What he didn't know then was how wildly successful his campaign would be in raising money, especially in small amounts from well over a million Americans. That surely changed his calculation about public financing.

Still, he should have honored his commitment. Now that he's decided not to, he has a special obligation to make sure the broken system is fixed if he is elected president.

Monday, June 16, 2008

In Search Of Post-Television Politics

I grew up knowing "squeaky clean Wisconsin" – a place known from coast to coast as a beacon of clean, open and accountable government. In the span of a single generation, we squandered the glorious inheritance that was passed down to us and our state slowly but surely became a political cesspool.

There are many reasons why Wisconsin's political culture changed so radically for the worse over the course of what, in historical terms, is a breathtakingly short period of time. But one cause of Wisconsin's fall from political grace stands out. It can be defined in a single word. Two letters, actually.


Television transformed our politics in two ways. First and most obviously, it is the driving force behind the non-stop money chase that has spawned the system of legalized extortion and bribery that is corrupting our government and undermining our democracy. A generation ago, candidates for state office worked the union halls and the Rotary Clubs and the newspaper editorial boards and knocked on thousands of doors and wore out one pair of shoes after another. Today, candidates routinely campaign 30 seconds at a time on TV. All those ads cost a fortune. Hence the average politician's canine appetite for campaign contributions.

Public officials turned into glorified collection agents for the TV stations is perhaps the most visible way television has poisoned politics. But TV has had another equally insidious effect on the political culture. It has made us dumber about civic matters.

We're undeniably more highly educated than past generations, but as a commentary in Sunday's Boston Globe illustrates, we're actually no better informed about government and politics than people were 40 or 50 years ago, and in some ways we're actually dumber. According to the article's author, who recently penned the book "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter," a big part of the explanation for this paradox can be found in one word. Two letters, actually.

No force in our society has done more to turn politicians into whores than television. And nothing has contributed more to the citizenry's shallowness and superficiality.

We thought our way into the television age, and now we have to think our way out of the most numbing side effects of our addiction to TV. The Internet is no doubt part of the solution. But it remains to be seen whether we can really Facebook or YouTube our way out of the hole we've dug for our democracy. The jury is still out on what, if any, role newspapers will play. Our public schools have to provide part of the answer, as one of our recent blogs suggested. That goes for libraries too. What will become of them?

But regardless of what tools we use to do the job, the task at hand still comes down to reinventing citizenship.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Robed And Naked

Annette Ziegler became the first state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin history to be found guilty of judicial misconduct and disciplined by the high court for failing to disclose financial conflicts of interest she had in cases she handled as a circuit court judge and refusing to recuse herself from the cases and let another judge handle them as state ethics rules require.

Now that Ziegler's sitting on the Supreme Court, she's recusing up a storm. Her political ties and her campaign finances make her so conflicted she will have to be a part-time judge.

It doesn't take a law degree to see a trend in the making here. While Ziegler sticks out like a sore thumb for now when it comes to her recusal rate, she won't for long. Not unless the way Supreme Court elections are conducted is completely overhauled. If future high court races go the way of the last two, more and more members of the court are going to be forced to recuse themselves more and more frequently.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Prologue To . . . Joystick Justice?

Our nation's founders didn't see eye to eye about many things, but they all saw how critically important education would be to the American experiment. James Madison's famous words can be recited from memory:

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. . . ."

Despite advising that "the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do," Thomas Jefferson devoted more words to lecturing his fellow countrymen on the value of education than perhaps any other subject.

We haven't listened well enough. We haven't learned.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told her audience at a New York City conference that "two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the judges on the Fox TV show 'American Idol,' but less than one in 10 can name the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court."

O'Connor is hardly alone in sounding the alarm about students' appalling knowledge of history and the ill health of citizenship education, but not many are going to the lengths she is in search of solutions. She even is helping to design video games she hopes might be able to make learning about things like the Supreme Court hip. Some call it her plan for "joystick justice."

Laugh if you like, but O'Connor shouldn't be ridiculed for grasping at cyberstraws. Such measures would not be necessary if our society was making civic instruction anything approaching a priority. When is the last time you heard a school superintendent or the Department of Public Instruction say that preparing young people to be informed and engaged citizens is the most important thing our schools do? Put another way, when is the last time you heard an educational leader sound like Madison or Jefferson?

There's a reason for that. Our society has sent the schools an unmistakable message: Preparing kids to be part of our economy trumps preparing them to be part of a democracy.

That's why math and science are all the rage. It's why civics is an afterthought. And it explains why people like Sandra Day O'Connor are looking for salvation in video games.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

'I Got It, I Got It . . . No, You Take It'

Investigators did the old Alphonse and Gaston routine with what appeared to be improper phone calls Supreme Court justice-elect Michael Gableman made when he was Ashland County district attorney. So the truth about whether he used his government office for personal political gain will remain buried.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Slap On The Wrist

This afternoon the state Supreme Court finally issued its opinion in the judicial misconduct case involving Justice Annette Ziegler. You can read the opinion here.

The court's decision to publicly reprimand Ziegler is disappointing but not at all surprising. The longer this case dragged on, the more likely it became that the justices were divided on what to do. A reprimand is not the right decision and it is not the proper discipline in this case, but it is all the justices could agree on.

The court used very strong language in describing the clear-cut violations of the state's judicial ethics rules and in condemning Ziegler's handling of the whole mess, but the justices got weak-kneed when it came to disciplinary action. The court leaned heavily on past precedent, which is strange considering that this is an unprecedented case. Never before has a sitting Supreme Court justice been found guilty of judicial misconduct and this is the first time the court has had to discipline one of its own members.

There is a double standard in how the court has disciplined judges and lawyers, as a Democracy Campaign analysis in early January made clear. Lawyers have commonly been suspended, sometimes for misbehavior as seemingly trivial as failing to pay state bar dues on time. Judges, on the other hand, are almost never suspended. The court did not address that double standard in today's ruling; on the contrary, the decision perpetuates the double standard.

It is hard to believe that the public will see a reprimand in this case as anything more than a slap on the wrist. It is equally hard to see how this will do anything to lift the dense cloud cover that is hovering over the Supreme Court thanks to the Ziegler affair and the poisonous Supreme Court elections in each of the last two years.

Confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our courts rests on the public's ability to trust that judges are not on anyone's side. That's why it's so essential that judges not rule on cases when they have a financial stake in one side. Such conflicts of interest need to be taken seriously when they exist. It will be a tough sell for the court to convince the public of its seriousness when a member of the state's highest court gets more lenient punishment for such intolerable behavior than lawyers get when they don't pay their professional dues in a timely fashion.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Nothing In Moderation

Terry Musser is the latest Republican moderate to leave the Legislature. He told reporters he's going back to the farm. "Cows, I have learned, are a lot more reasonable than many people in this building," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Having been born and raised on a dairy farm, I can attest to the truth in what Musser is saying. Every barn I've ever been in is more peaceful – not to mention a damn sight cleaner – than the State Capitol. But there's more to Musser's departure than that. He also acknowledged that the beating he took from his fellow Republicans for his support of a bill requiring hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims was "the straw that broke the camel's back."

Musser's decision to hang it up is the latest phase of the cleansing of moderate elements from the state Republican Party. It started in earnest back in 1994, when middle-of-the-roader Barb Lorman was taken out by self-proclaimed "hard-line conservative" Scott Fitzgerald in a GOP Senate primary. Other moderate Republican women suffered a similar fate in more recent years. Peggy Rosenzweig was defeated in a primary by the way-right Tom Reynolds. Mary Panzer moved steadily to the right during her long tenure in the Legislature, but it still didn't spare her the indignity of being challenged from the right – and beaten – by Glenn Grothman. Joanne Huelsman stepped aside rather than taking on the much more conservative Ted Kanavas after redistricting put them in the same Senate district in 2002.

A lengthy list of other Republican moderates – from Brian Rude and Joan Wade Spillner to DuWayne Johnsrud and Mickey Lehman – decided they had had their fill and retired. Still others – like Steve Freese, Ron Brown and Gabe Loeffelholz – were knocked off by Democratic challengers.

Regardless of why or how they came to be ex-legislators, their departures add up to one thing: the extermination of moderate Republicans in Wisconsin politics. I wrote last October about how Bill Kraus lost his party. He can only take comfort in knowing he's not alone. His kind is going the way of the polar bear.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A GAAP-Toothed Budget

Lawmakers were all smiles the other day when they passed what has very loosely been called a budget repair bill. The governor had to be smiling too after he executed a Frankenstein veto on the Legislature's handiwork to reshape it to his liking. (For those who thought the voters had put an end to this kind of thing by amending the state constitution in April, I should hate myself for saying this, but I told you so.)

Legislators were four months late putting together the original budget and in a few short months it was out of balance again, even by their peculiar accounting standards. They now claim it's fixed. It isn't.

The collective grin we got from state officials was gap-toothed . . . it had a hole in it the size of the hole that remains in the budget. They did what they've done for years . . . use smoke and mirrors to make the budget appear balanced. But if Generally Accepted Accounting Principles are applied, there still is a hefty deficit. Call it the GAAP gap.

Private companies and nonprofit groups and other government agencies operate under GAAP standards. But not our state government. Central to GAAP is the idea that both revenues and expenses for a given year should be accounted for in that same fiscal year. For years now, state lawmakers have engaged in financial sleight of hand, delaying major state payments until after the current fiscal year ends and effectively putting those expenses on a credit card to be paid in the next budget period. There is nothing in state law that makes this practice illegal, but it is most certainly financially irresponsible.

There are at least two negative consequences for taxpayers. First, failing to pay today's bills until tomorrow makes paying tomorrow's bills even harder. The state's problem keeps getting bigger. A report issued in January had the GAAP deficit at over $2.4 billion. The previous year, it was $2.15 billion, which was more than the year before. And that year's GAAP gap was bigger than the year before that. You get the picture.

The second consequence of the GAAP deficit is it hurts the state's bond rating. That means the state has to pay higher interest rates when it borrows money. And, of course, it's the taxpayers who pay the penalty for our lawmakers' fiscal irresponsibility.

This problem has been 20 years in the making. GAAP deficits have been happening under Democratic governors and Republican governors, and they've been happening when Republicans control the Legislature as well as when Democrats are in charge. But while the problem isn't new and both parties are to blame, it's important to remember that it hasn't always been this way.

There was a time when Wisconsin had a truly balanced budget. What's interesting is that persistent GAAP deficits emerged about the same time Wisconsin's Legislature changed from a part-time citizen legislature to one that is full-time and run by professional politicians. That's no coincidence.

To balance a budget, you either spend less or take in more. In government, that means either higher taxes or fewer public services or some combination of the two. None of these options is politically painless. But back when we had part-time citizen legislators, they were willing and able to make those tough choices. Then they returned to their regular lives.

For today's legislators, politics is their life. It's a career now. Telling taxpayers they'll have to pay more or get less from government is career threatening. So they look for a more appealing alternative. Like putting today's expenses on a credit card and worrying about how to pay for them later. And smiling and telling us the problem is solved. Even when it isn't.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Taking The Public's Place

I've written for years about how our nation's founders must be spinning in their graves knowing how we came to treat corporations as people and gave them the rights of citizens. It's growing increasingly clear the corporations are not content with gaining citizenship status the founders never intended them to have. Now they want to take the place of actual citizens. Literally.

Watch this. . . .

Sort of puts the last state Supreme Court race – in which four corporate-funded interest groups spent more than $4 million and did 90% of the TV advertising in the race – in a new and even more disturbing light, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

One Doesn't Know, One Doesn't Care

Two Racine area legislators had differing reactions to a recent Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report that detailed how much money legislative and statewide officeholders received in out-of-state individual contributions in 2007.

Unfortunately, one doesn't seem to know where he gets his campaign cash, and the other one doesn't care.

Republican Representative Robin Vos said people should consider how well candidates could represent their constituents if they cannot raise enough money from them to get elected. "My goal has always been to generate the most interest and the most support from people I represent in Racine County," Vos told a newspaper.

Be that as it may, Vos has not received the bulk of his campaign cash from people he represents. A WDC review of his individual contributions since he was first elected in 2004 found that he accepted $33,321 or 89 percent of his individual contributions in 2003-04 from outside his district; $52,434 or 81 percent of his individual contributions in 2005-06 from outside his district; and $40,913 or 87 percent of his individual contributions in 2007 from outside his district.

Democratic Representative Robert Turner said in the same media account that he doesn't see any problem with outside contributions as long as they are legal, and it shows. "That's the No. 1 principle of democracy, being able to give money to who you choose."

Turner did not receive any large individual contributions in 2007 from outside Wisconsin, but he has accepted $5,718 or 72 percent of his $7,918 in individual contributions from 2003-07 from people who cannot vote for him.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Digging Out Of The Pigeonhole

When the great Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi was asked if he was a Hindu, Gandhi is said to have replied: "Yes I am. I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew."

I thought of Gandhi when I was listening to the thought-provoking keynote talk former Republican State Representative Terri McCormick gave yesterday at the Democracy Campaign's annual membership meeting.

McCormick made clear she was born and raised a Republican and unmistakably remains one. She paid homage to her Republican heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and former state lawmaker Earl Mcessy. She spoke fondly of Ronald Reagan. But she also spoke admiringly of JFK. And she said what America really needs now is another Harry Truman.

While she talked mostly about political integrity, the culture at the Capitol and what the current system does to well-intentioned people, McCormick also touched on a wide range of other topics. She struck a classic Republican pose on business regulation, but sounded like a fair-trade Democrat on NAFTA.

Terri McCormick is a conservative. And a moderate. And a liberal. Maybe that's why she lost her last election. The political world doesn't cotton to split ideological personalities.

Normal people are philosophical mutts . . . conservative about some things, liberal about some, and in the middle of the road on others. Only in the political world do people have a corn cob stuck you-know-where over ideological purity.

I suspect I don't see eye to eye with Terri McCormick on a fair number of issues. But I'm like her in one respect. I am conservative, and moderate, and liberal. When it comes to personal finances, I am conservative to the extreme. My family doesn't make a lot by current middle-class standards, but we make a good deal more than we spend. And we have no debt. No home mortgage, no car payment, no credit card debt. There was a time when such habits qualified you to be a Republican. Not any more.

A belief in limited government also has long been seen as characteristic of Republicans. But if that belief takes the form of a conviction that government has no place in the bedroom or the doctor's office or at the death bed, that gets you excommunicated from the modern Republican Party. Litmus tests are all the rage in today's politics. Pass 'em all or you can't belong to the club.

I think Terri McCormick wants to run for public office again. Personally, I hope she does. But I wonder if the political world will tolerate her kind. I think she might be too normal.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why We Left Out Frankenstein

Some have asked why the Democracy Campaign did not include the votes in the Senate and Assembly on the constitutional amendment purporting to ban the so-called "Frankenstein veto" in the analysis of roll call votes on democracy reform issues that we issued yesterday.

There are three reasons.

1. It wasn't much of a reform. Even with the constitutional amendment, Wisconsin's governor still possesses the most extensive – and abusive – veto power in the country. And there are still ways the state's current governor or any future governor will be able to stitch together pieces of laws to create whole new laws that the Legislature never approved. It is this capability that the governor retains that inspired the nickname "Frankenstein veto" in the first place. In short, this "reform" doesn't do much. It certainly doesn't kill Frankenstein. At best, it wounds him slightly. Very slightly.

2. It was an easy vote. There is a reason why the vote was 33-0 in the Senate and 94-1 in the Assembly. The vote on the constitutional amendment was a chance for legislators to appear to favor reform without doing anything of real consequence and, most notably, without doing a thing to clean up their own act. It is telling that the lone "no" vote was cast by a member of the Assembly who is not running for re-election and thus has no need to posture as a reformer. That member, retiring 22-year legislative veteran Frank Boyle, said he voted against the constitutional amendment because it was confusing and pointless. Boyle was the only one in the Legislature willing to call it what it was, but there were plenty of voices outside the Capitol who agreed with him.

3. Including it in our analysis wouldn't have changed the rankings. Because only one member of the Legislature voted against the Frankenstein veto amendment, including the Senate and Assembly roll call votes would not have narrowed the gap in scores between legislators and thus would not have altered the rankings. The same legislators still would have been in the same categories.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Does The Bill Of Rights Really Guarantee The Right To Secretly Buy Elections?

The Democracy Campaign recently estimated that special interest groups spent $4.8 million to influence the state Supreme Court race. A spokesman for the top spender, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, insisted our estimate was inaccurate but wouldn’t say why and refused to offer up any numbers to prove it wrong. He repeated for the umpteenth time the company line that groups like WMC have a First Amendment right to keep the public in the dark about how much is spent to sway voters and where that money comes from.

In effect, those who are taking ownership of our courts and our state legislature and our governor are saying that they have a constitutional right not only to wield daggers in the political arena but also to hide under cloaks while they do it.

What they also are effectively saying – over and over and over again until even people who ought to know better accept it as a universal truth – is that we have to choose between judicial independence and free speech. Or choose between open, honest government and the right to speak.

Those are false choices.

No constitutional right is absolute or unconditional. Among other things, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. But ask any of the countless journalists who have been jailed or the judges who put them behind bars if there are limits to that freedom.

Or take the Second Amendment. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Put aside for a moment that some believe the “well regulated militia” clause means the Second Amendment bestows a collective right to bear arms, not an individual right. Most people, and most courts, believe it protects an individual’s right to possess weapons. But that doesn’t mean that individuals have an unconditional right to keep and bear any and all arms. For instance, no one in their right mind would say the Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to possess nuclear arms.

Just as an individual’s possession of a weapon of mass destruction would pose an intolerable threat to other community members’ rights to life, liberty and security, the First Amendment right of free speech likewise can be exercised in a way that does violence to citizen rights and the common good.

We have reached that point in Wisconsin politics.

In the Supreme Court election, two lobbying groups and three very shadowy front groups did 90 percent of the television advertising. With five interest groups doing almost all of the talking, the candidates in the race largely became bystanders in their own election. They had the right to speak, but virtually no way to be heard. A lot of good the First Amendment did them.

Voters got even more of a raw deal. Elections are supposed to be dialogues between candidates and voters. This one was a special interest monologue. The First Amendment wasn’t worth the paper it’s written on to ordinary citizens in this election. On top of that, in the name of the First Amendment voters were denied essential information about who paid for the more than 12,000 TV ads that were aired in the Supreme Court race, or even how much they cost.

It’s time we start distinguishing between the exercise of free speech and the abuse of it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Brogan 'Smear' And The Rest Of The Story

Green Bay business executive John Brogan says the Democracy Campaign is "smearing" him by pointing out that campaign finance reports filed by candidates for state office show that he made more than the legal limit of $10,000 in campaign contributions in 2007.

And Brogan says the Democracy Campaign also "falsely accused" him in 2003 of exceeding the $10,000 limit, because the Elections Board ruled back then that his use of a joint checking account to make the donations meant that no violation occurred.

Some pertinent facts . . . .

When the Elections Board let Brogan and 16 others off the hook in 2003, the board ignored a 1999 state appeals court ruling that campaign contributions made from joint accounts are made by an individual – not a couple – from his or her portion of those shared funds.

The candidates who received contributions from John Brogan in 2007 reported them as coming from him alone, not as joint contributions from him and his wife. We frequently see candidates report split or joint donations from a married couple, but did not see it in Brogan's case.

Both John Brogan and his wife, Gisela, are active donors. They often give to the same candidates but not always. For example, in 2007 Gisela gave Tom Nelson a $500 contribution on June 4 while John made a $500 donation on the same day to Jim Soletski. Governor Jim Doyle's campaign reported receiving separate $2,500 donations from both John and Gisela Brogan on January 5, 2007.

We did not count any part of Gisela Brogan's $2,500 donation to Doyle among the $12,500 in total campaign contributions John Brogan gave to various candidates in 2007. But John Brogan now says the donations that candidates reported receiving from him alone should be considered as coming from both him and his wife.

Over the years, the Brogans have given to 25 different candidates or campaign committees. Only one candidate reported a donation as coming from them jointly. The other 24 candidates or committees all reported receiving donations from either John or Gisela, but not both of them jointly. Maybe it's a coincidence that two dozen campaigns all considered these individual donations coming from just one of them, but it's a hell of a coincidence.

Looking at Gisela Brogan's giving history, on at least eight different occasions she's made contributions on days when her husband did not make any donations. On other occasions, she made donations on the same day as her husband did, but not always to the same candidate.

When all this evidence is considered, we believe John Brogan's argument that his donations were all jointly made with his wife is very weak. The Elections Board bought this argument in the past (and even encouraged donors to use it to appear to be in compliance), but hopefully the new Government Accountability Board that replaced the Elections Board will not allow the law to be gamed in this way.

We believe Brogan is in violation of the law now and was in violation of the same law when he made more than $10,000 in donations in 2002, but as I made clear in remarks to the GAB at the board's January 28 meeting, the old Elections Board's approach to enforcement of this particular section of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws left a great deal to be desired. We are hopeful that the new board will take a stronger stand and faithfully enforce the law.

Finally, it's worth noting that the other violator we identified, Patricia Kern, can't make the argument that her donations were jointly made because her husband, Robert, maxed out for the year when he gave $10,000 to Annette Ziegler in 2007. So if any portion of Patricia Kern's donations are considered to be from her husband, that would put him over the legal limit.

Now the question is whether there will be a double standard with respect to enforcement of the law in these two cases, with one donor punished because a reallocation of some portion of the excess amount of donations to a spouse is not an option while the other donor is again let off the hook. We obviously hope the new board will not repeat the mistakes of the old board, and will develop a more consistent and defensible approach to enforcement.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Representatives Of The Machine

Read this and weep. No, it only resembles a script from an episode of the Sopranos. It's real life in Wisconsin politics. It's the plea agreement in the Allan Kehl case, which is the latest offshoot of the casino corruption scandal that led to the criminal convictions of Dennis Troha, John Erickson and Achille Infusino.

Mr. County Executive, here's an envelope stuffed with $10,000 in cash. Oh, Mr. Kehl, there's something for you in your car. Hey, a stack of bills. Five grand.

This chapter stings because it's still being written. But with history as our guide, we know how the book will end. Read this and be cheered.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

It's A Symbol Alright

State lawmakers were four months late passing a state budget, and the budget they did eventually pass is already badly out of balance. And now they can't come to an agreement on how to patch up the holes. They also couldn't bring themselves to do a thing about the broken health care system. And even after we all had to shower after the most recent Supreme Court election, campaign finance reform seems the furthest thing from their minds.

But, hey, give credit where credit is due, they agreed on something . . . a new state symbol. On Monday, Governor Doyle signed into law legislation approved by both houses that designates an official state tartan.

Meanwhile, there's a new toll-free hotline citizens can use to report waste, fraud and abuse in Wisconsin. The number to call is 877-372-8317. Or you can go here and report what's bugging you via the Internet.

Maybe the first phone or Web tip should be about the Legislature.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Half Remembering Dr. King

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As we all reflect on Dr. King's legacy, it is sure that one part of the man will be celebrated. That's the sanitized, historical King. What is too often glossed over is the subversive, prophetic King.

I ask you to read two things. First, a column by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker. Second, a speech Dr. King made one year to the day before his assassination. As "I Have a Dream" stirs the soul, this speech gnaws at the conscience. Now more than ever.

It's important to remember the life of this amazing man. But it's even more important to remember the whole man and his whole life. To do otherwise is to allow enemies of Dr. King's vision of humanity to rob that vision of its true power.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Casualties Of War

A war is being waged for control of our courts. And, as with all wars, there are casualties. It's said that truth is the first casualty, and that certainly was the case in this year's Supreme Court election. The campaigning was ceaselessly deceptive and misleading, often downright untruthful, and with very few exceptions unrelentingly trashy.

Two other casualties also stand out. One is judicial independence. Wisconsin is well on its way to special interest ownership of our courts. A handful of special interest lobbying groups and phony front organizations did over 90% of the campaign advertising in the race. The candidates were for the most part bystanders in this election. The interest groups defined the candidates, decided which issue would be discussed, and controlled what was said about that issue. The issue was crime, even though it has virtually nothing to do with the work of the Supreme Court.

Another casualty is the state's judicial code of ethics, which is no longer worth the paper it's written on. This election was conducted in a way that is not remotely in keeping with the requirements of the ethics code. The code is dead as a doornail unless the state Judicial Commission and ultimately the Supreme Court itself take forceful action to enforce these rules and hold candidates for the high court accountable for obeying them.

The court is in a no-win position. If they vigorously enforce the code, that means punishing one of their own (well, actually, two of their own). That would require them to throw cordiality out the window and let the chips fall where they may. If on the other hand they opt to maintain constructive working relationships (if that's even possible anymore), they sign the ethics code's death certificate. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

The Supreme Court is in the midst of a hostile takeover. Many in the legal community and many more in the broader community of Wisconsin citizens have pulled a Switzerland. But as Dante famously said, the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, remain neutral.