Thursday, January 24, 2008

Not One Word

Governor Jim Doyle's State of the State Address last night was classic Doyle. Exactly what you would expect a by-the-book politician to say.

The speech was peppered with platitudes – "in Wisconsin, we are hardworking people . . . and when challenges arise, we meet them head on" – and was heavy on celebrity introductions. As inspiring as unbuttered toast, painfully few of the governor's nearly 4,500 words could even be generously construed as visionary and none qualified as passionate.

Speaking of none, the governor uttered not a single word on a subject that poll after poll shows is right up at the top of the list of concerns of Wisconsinites – shady government ethics and diseased politics. Concern over political dysfunction is the festering public anxiety lurking underneath the worries about every other problem facing our state, and the governor had nothing to say about it.

Just before the holidays, Governor Doyle called the Legislature into special session to deal with campaign finance reform. He showed last night how invested he is in that special session and how committed he is to reform.

The governor's words about the state of our state were eminently forgettable and will quickly fade from memory. What he left unsaid, however, speaks volumes about the man.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Butler Got Support From Former Opponent

Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler once got some unexpected support that most political candidates don't see - a contribution from a former opponent.

Butler's campaign records show he received a $100 contribution March 25, 2002 from then-Supreme Court Justice Diane Sykes. Butler, a Milwaukee municipal judge at the time, was running for a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judgeship. He won the race.

Interestingly, Sykes, who was appointed to the high court by former Republican Tommy Thompson in 1999 to fill a vacancy caused by a retiring justice, was challenged by Butler when she had to run for election in 2000.

Sykes won the election but left the state Supreme Court in 2004 before finishing her term when President Bush picked her for a federal judgeship. Democratic Governor Jim Doyle then picked Butler to replace Sykes.

That aside, a lot of people would view Sykes and Butler as ideological opposites with Sykes leaning right and Butler leaning left.

Butler faces election to his own term on the court April 1 against Burnett County Circuit Judge Mike Gableman.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Fast Fall From Grace And A Slow Climb Back To Respectability

The chapter on Wisconsin in the new book, Democratic Renewal: A Call to Action from America's Heartland, begins with this: "Wisconsin was once known for clean, open and progressive government. Those days are gone. This is something state residents know in their hearts."

Wisconsin has been robbed of its unique political culture and any claim of being worthy of the state's proud tradition of honorable government. As cultural change goes, it happened breathtakingly fast, over the course of a single generation. How it happened is chronicled in Democratic Renewal in painstaking detail. Political ills that we used to associate only with states like Illinois or Louisiana or New Jersey are now on prominent display here in Wisconsin.

The introduction of these pathologies has had the effect of homogenizing politics at the state level. Had a book like Democratic Renewal been written 20 or 25 years ago, the chapters on Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin would have been vastly different. Read this book today and you find that Wisconsin's story is virtually indistinguishable from the others.

Wisconsin was once known for clean, open and progressive government. Those days are gone.

Whether or not they can be brought back is up to all of us. Renewing democracy will not be easy and it certainly can't be done quickly. Understanding that up front can sustain us when frustration sets in. So can what Thomas Paine famously said: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Going Nowhere By Design

The few items the Assembly and Senate plan to work on in 2008 is mostly stuff that both houses know is going nowhere.

Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch says the GOP-controlled Assembly will tackle proposals that benefit business and other wealthy campaign contributors, like tax credits, capital gains breaks, providing more money to startup technology businesses and making health savings accounts tax deductible. Even though some of these pro-business items were tossed to them by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, doesn't seem enthused about anything in that pot.

The Senate Democrats plan on pushing a revision of their universal health care plan that was ditched during the budget because the Republican Assembly and Doyle didn't like it and it doesn't seem they like it any better now.

But working on stuff that goes nowhere has it rewards for both Democratic and Republican legislators.

The host of powerful special interests including business, manufacturing, health care providers, insurance and others that want the tax breaks and more state dollars or oppose broad health care and campaign finance plans contributed $3 million to Assembly Republicans in their last two election cycles, from 2003 through 2006. That's 71 percent of the $4.3 million in large individual and political action committee contributions Assembly Republicans accepted during the four-year period. And that doesn't count the additional millions of dollars spent of their behalf by special interests on independent expenditures and phony issue ads.

For Senate Democrats, labor, which is their biggest contributor at $475,720 from 2003 through 2006, numerous advocacy groups and left-leaning political organizations want universal health care. In addition to the direct contributions, labor and the Greater Wisconsin Committee probably will spend generously on independent expenditures and phony issue ads to help the Senate Dems keep their majority in November.

Little Work, No Results = More Money and Job Security

Only two weeks into the New Year, Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch says there's no time left in 2008 for the Assembly to pass comprehensive health care reform or a statewide smoking ban in public places. He also says he's not sure there's time to bother with campaign finance reform, which would help address the problems behind those other issues.

Dealing with such issues would be a strain for a crew who met only 20 days in 2007 and is scheduled to meet sporadically between now and the end of May and then take off the rest of the year. By the way, legislators are paid $47,413 a year. When they are in Madison on business, those who live outside Dane County also get $88 a day in living expenses; legislators who live in Dane County get $44 a day.

Sadly, the real reason is they don't want to approve any public policy that irritates big business and other well-heeled special interests that will spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions to legislators and nasty advertising and other outside electioneering activities between now and the November 2008 elections.

If you need proof, it's no secret how business, manufacturing and other wealthy special interests feel about major health care reform.

Huebsch also says the proposed statewide smoking ban in public places faces an "uphill battle in this house and in the Senate." No wonder. The 52-member Assembly Republican majority has accepted $132,845, or an average of $2,555 each, from tavern owners from 2003 through 2006.

Only in the political arena do cutting work and accomplishing less get you more money and improve your job security.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Where There's Suds There's Smoke

Senate Democrats have changed a proposed statewide smoking ban in public places to cut a big campaign contributor a break, but some say the compromise still doesn't go far enough for the tavern industry.

The latest version of the bill approved by a Senate committee last week put the ban in effect in 2009, except for taverns and restaurants which would not be included until 2010.

Still not good enough, protests Democratic Senator Roger Breske, a former tavern owner and president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin. "The only way this bill should ever make it to the Governor's desk is with thoughtful compromise so that family businesses across Wisconsin are not wiped out almost overnight."

Between now and 2010 is hardly overnight. Might it be that Breske and others are really concerned about preserving the flow of campaign contributions from a large special interest contributor? After all, no further changes are needed to satisfy the general public. Polls consistently have put public support at about two-thirds for a smoking ban in public places.

The Tavern League, which wants bars exempted from smoking bans, and tavern owners contributed $294,745 to current legislators from 2003 through 2006.

Breske accepted $15,674 from tavern owners from 2003 through 2006, more than any other legislator. Second to Breske for tavern industry contributions among legislative Democrats for the period is Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker at $10,850.

Now Decker hints there may be further compromises, saying the committee's action "may lead us to a final compromise."

Republican Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch doubts the smoking ban would go anywhere in the Assembly if it makes it out of the Senate. "It has an uphill battle in this house and in the Senate," he said in a recent interview.

Huebsch's 52-member Assembly Republican caucus which controls the Assembly collected $132,845 in contributions from tavern owners from 2003 through 2006 - far more than any of the other three caucuses.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quote Of The Day

Heard through the grapevine that State Senator Glenn Grothman was on Mitch Henck's radio talk show awhile back and was asked whether he supports full disclosure of sham issue ads. These are the special interest-sponsored electioneering advertisements masquerading as issue advocacy that plainly support the election or defeat of a candidate but stop just short of using words such as "vote for," "vote against," "elect" or "defeat." They've effectively rendered meaningless Wisconsin's campaign finance disclosure requirements and contribution limits, not to mention the state's century-old ban on corporate campaign donations.

Senator Grothman's reply? "No, because some people don't like people to know that they're spending the money."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

One Versus Ninety-Nine

In an NPR story on new Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and his promised clean-up of that state's politics, it's mentioned that Jindal raised more than $13 million for his campaign.

Not a problem, one longtime Louisiana Capitol watcher told NPR. "You hope that if everyone buys him, no one owns him," he said.

He hopes.

His hope is a false one. In a system that's supposed to be government of the people, by the people and for the people, only a tiny percentage of the people are doing the buying. If you look at every last donor in the Democracy Campaign's searchable computer database of contributors to campaigns in our state, the total number of individuals you'll find represents about 1% of Wisconsin's voting age population. I'm sure it's pretty much the same in Louisiana.

There's the rub with the money in politics. If 1% buy our politicians, then that same 1% own them. And you know where that leaves the other 99%. Taxed, but not represented.