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.