Monday, December 28, 2009

Scraping The Bottom Of The Barrel

When Governor Jim Doyle signed the Impartial Justice bill into law on December 1, a Virginia group called the Center for Competitive Politics all but promised to sue to block the law. CCP's president left no doubt his outfit was shopping for a litigant in Wisconsin even before it got the governor's signature.

CCP is indeed behind a lawsuit filed in federal court last Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of Wisconsin's Supreme Court election reform law. But it seems the litigant shopping didn't go all that well. Turns out the only Wisconsinite they could find willing to be the public face of the lawsuit is someone who was for publicly financed Supreme Court elections before he was evidently talked into being against them.

As Wisconsin Public Radio reported last week:
Former candidate sues over public financing law for high court races

Former Supreme Court candidate and Jefferson County Judge Randy Koschnick has filed a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's new public financing law for Supreme Court races. That's despite comments he made on the campaign trail in support of public financing.

Koschnick did not take public financing in his unsuccessful race for the state Supreme Court. Any money his campaign spent came either from himself or private donors, and not the state.

But at the press conference where Koschnick announced his candidacy back in November of 2008, he was asked directly how he felt about public financing.

Koschnick responded, "I think that's a great idea."

Koschnick went on to say he wasn't rich, and that he hoped to raise enough money from individuals to run a serious campaign. But, he added that he thought public financing would enable legitimate
candidates to run without necessarily having to be independently wealthy and might also reduce the influence of third-party groups who "obviously wield a lot of power and money."

Despite that praise for public financing on the campaign trail, Koschnick is now trying to overturn the entirety of Wisconsin's new public financing law.
As a candidate, Judge Koschnick made a compelling case that public financing of elections enhances free speech by giving more candidates the means to run competitively. In his lawsuit, he now claims public financing of Supreme Court elections "violates the Speech Clause of the First Amendment" by "suppressing the speech of candidates for the Office of Justice."

Care to explain the flip flop, judge?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Your Lawsuit's A Foul One, Right To Life

Most every voter
In the whole state of Wisconsin
Likes Impartial Justice a lot . . .

But Right to Life,
A powerful big old lobbying group,
Does NOT!

Right to Life hates Impartial Justice! The whole darn law!
Now please don't ask why. Who knows what they saw.
It could be their heads aren't screwed on quite right.
It could be, perhaps, that their shorts are too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason . . . ahem,
May be that they want judges to belong just to them.

But whatever the reason,
Their heads or their shorts,
Just days before Christmas, they're hating impartial courts.
Glaring from on high with a sour, Grinchy frown,
Every lawmaker who voted for it had to be wrong.
For they imagine every voter from Peshtigo to Paoli,
Really wants the best court money can buy.

"They might rule based on facts!" they snarl with a sneer.
"The next high court election is 2011! It's practically here!"
Then they growl, with their fingers nervously drumming,
"We MUST find a way to stop Impartial Justice from coming!"

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Warped View From The Bench

On October 28, four members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court approved rules written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association allowing judges in our state to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. A little more than a month later, one of the four - Justice Patience Roggensack - wrote a newspaper commentary defending the action.

Judging from reader reaction, it fooled no one.

In a letter to the editor that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on December 11, Norm Littlejohn of Madison asks "Is Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack naive? Or does she think we are?" The rest of his letter makes his answers to those questions very clear.

Peter Beatty of Middleton pointed out in a letter published in today's State Journal that Roggensack overlooks the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process and the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in a West Virginia case, Caperton v. Massey, that huge campaign contributions by one side in the case denied the other side a fair trial. Beatty concludes that it is "embarrassing to live in a state in which the highest justices are political hacks of monied interest groups. It makes a mockery of our high court."

This same sentiment was voiced by The Capital Times in an editorial posted last Friday. The newspaper called her attempt to "portray the Oct. 28 action as an embrace of democracy" a "tortured defense of legalized bribery."

The fate of the rules Roggensack so enthusiastically defends is now up in the air. It appears to have dawned on Justice David Prosser that it looks bad for the court to take what WMC and the Realtors wrote and approve it verbatim. So he has withdrawn his support, causing the new rules to be rescinded at least temporarily. Prosser says he still supports the thrust of the rules but believes the language needs to be fine-tuned. It looks like what he's really trying to do is figure out a way to remove the lobbying groups' fingerprints and make it look like the court did its own writing.

Talk about your tortured defenses of legalized bribery.

Been There, Seen That

We could have told Tiger Woods this was coming. Living up to contracts isn't Accenture's strong suit.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Jumpin' Justices

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association said jump and the majority of Wisconsin Supreme Court justices (namely Prosser, Gableman, Ziegler and Roggensack) jumped. WMC and the Realtors said jump again, and the high court held an "open administrative conference" yesterday to ask how high.

Amazing spectacle. The Flexible Four allowed two of the most powerful lobbying groups in Wisconsin to write rules for them allowing judges to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. Then the groups decide they are not completely happy with what they wrote and want some changes. The new rules promptly are retracted and Justice Prosser says he'll come back with some kind of proposal in about a week.

So we wait. To see how the court will degrade itself next.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Campaign Donations And The Cable Con

Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and 74 legislators who approved a controversial bill in 2007 to deregulate the cable industry have received more than $493,000 in campaign contributions since then from special interests that supported the measure.

The cable deregulation law, which supporters boasted would increase competition and lower customer bills, was the subject of a Legislative Audit Bureau report this week that found basic cable rates rose an average 21 percent over the past two years. Expanded basic rates increased 11.5 percent between July 2007 and July 2009, the audit said.

Business interests, the telephone industry and two unions - the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - backed the bill led by AT&T. The telephone giant employed 15 lobbyists to push the bill because it wanted to break into the video provider market with offerings like U-Verse faster and cheaper than under the old cable franchising system. The new law set up a state licensing system that no longer required video providers to negotiate cable contracts with individual communities.

Between January 2008 and June 2009 - the first 18 months after the new law was in place - contributions by special interest backers totaled $493,109 to Doyle, 74 legislators who voted for the bill and are still in the legislature and four legislative fundraising committees.

Doyle has gotten $182,671 followed by the four Democratic and Republican legislative campaign committees, which are mega-fundraising committees used by legislative leaders to milk special interests for campaign cash. The committees accepted between $13,000 and $39,000 from cable deregulation supporters.

For additional information about campaign contributions by AT&T and the others while the bill was being developed and debated in the legislature check out this and this about the bill's authors, Republican Representative Phil Montgomery of Ashwaubenon and Democratic Senator Jeff Plale of South Milwaukee, and this about the 23-9 Senate vote in favor of the bill.

Doyle blamed the economy for souring cable competition - though the pay-to-play economy seemed to treat his campaign just fine. And Montgomery, who has received $6,825 from special interest backers since the bill was approved, told the Associated Press that he was disappointed cable rates haven't dropped.

So are we all.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fix The Blessed Problem - UPDATE

Amended campaign finance reports for two mega-fundraising committees were filed on the Government Accountability Board's electronic filing system shortly after the Democracy Campaign posted a blog Monday saying the original year-end 2008 reports known to be erroneous had been on the GAB site for 10 months.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Fix The Blessed Problem

I couldn't resist paraphrasing Democratic Representative David Obey's recent reaction to the wildly erroneous information on a federal government website about the jobs created by the federal stimulus program because it reflects our sentiments about the Government Accountability Board's new electronic filing system.

Some grossly erroneous campaign finance reports on the board's Campaign Finance Information System haven't been corrected 10 months after they were publicly identified by the Democracy Campaign.

The reports filed February 2 by two mega-fundraising committees called the State Senate Democratic Committee and the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee contain more than $300,000 worth of duplicate and misidentified campaign contributions and expenses. The reports show many thousands of dollars in contributions and expenses attributed to the Government Accountability Board.

At a November 21 legislative hearing, the board's ethics division administrator Jonathan Becker told legislators the board would press the two committees that week to file corrected reports but as of this posting two weeks later - nothing.

Said Becker: "Even though we have the right information they haven't officially filed it yet. We've had it for a long time."

If that's the case then why haven't the committees filed correct reports after nearly 10 months? If the committees are refusing to file then bring them up on charges and fine them. Why hasn't there been any enforcement action in 10 months?

The board has fined dozens of other filers since January 2008 for lobbying, ethics and campaign finance law violations ranging from late-filed reports to making illegal campaign contributions. The board has tagged violators with fines ranging from $10 to $1,350.

Board staff has defended the problem-ridden CFIS since it debuted in fall 2008 as a project that increases public disclosure and access to information that shows where political candidates and committees get and spend their money.

But it is not public disclosure when GAB or any other government agency provides information to the public that is wrong and worse yet lets it sit out there for 10 months after finding out it is wrong.

As Obey went on to say about the stimulus program's website debacle: "Credibility counts in government and stupid mistakes like this undermine it."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Approaching Average

A couple of things in the newspapers caught my eye recently. One was a news story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about how taxes in Wisconsin compare to other states. The other was a commentary by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on what has to happen to prevent America's decline.

The headline over the Journal Sentinel story was "Wisconsin improves its ranking on taxes." Revealing choice of words. The assumption - and bias - here is that lowering taxes is always an improvement. When we're told Wisconsin is "approaching average," it is taken for granted that such a condition is a good thing.

Meanwhile, Friedman is lamenting how America is becoming less exceptional. Approaching average, one might say. He says better leaders won't be nearly enough to right the ship. We need better citizens "who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do hard things."

Hmmm. . . .

Wisconsin improving. Tax ranking falling.

America declining. Must. Do. Hard. Things. Sacrifice. Even pay higher taxes.

Cognitive dissonance, it's good to see you again. It's been awhile.

Once my head stopped spinning, another thing caught my eye in Friedman's column. Six things, actually. Six things that are paralyzing America and preventing us from confronting and conquering the huge problems plaguing our country. First among them is money in politics, which has "become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest."

Next is gerrymandering of political districts so "politicians of each party can now choose their own voters and never have to appeal to the center."

Two related problems are the cable TV culture that "encourages shouting" and segregates people into "their own political echo chambers" and the Internet culture that, at its worst, "provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mods from across the political spectrum that attack anyone who departs from their orthodoxy."

Friedman also points to the "permanent presidential campaign" that leaves little time for governing. And finally, he calls out American businesses that have become so globalized that they no longer can see beyond their own narrow interests and meaningfully contribute to a national dialogue on how to keep this country strong and prosperous.

He concludes by saying a "great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power - no matter how much imagination it generates." Or, one might add, no matter how much it cuts taxes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Puppets On The Potomac

Stunningly outrageous though it was, the state Supreme Court's approval of new judicial ethics rules written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association allowing judges to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign contributors was hardly an isolated instance of ghostwriting by powerful interests for obedient public officials.

This from The New York Times:

"In the official record of the historic House debate on health care overhaul, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident.

Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world's largest biotechnology companies.

E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that the lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans. The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.

Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points - 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gableman Found Loophole, Is Free To Molest Another Opponent

A headline in this morning's print edition of the Wisconsin State Journal says "Judges: Gableman TV ads OK."

It's hard to reach that conclusion if you actually read the "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendation" issued yesterday by the three-judge Judicial Conduct Panel that reviewed the judicial misconduct complaint against state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.

Two of the three judges said the ad in question was plainly misleading with one calling it "deserving of condemnation" but both concluded Gableman could not be punished for it under the state Judicial Code of Conduct because none of the statements in the ad taken alone was objectively false. The third judge disagreed, arguing the whole ad did amount to an outright lie, but nevertheless agreed that the complaint against Gableman should be dismissed because, in his view, the section of the judicial ethics code under which Gableman was charged with judicial misconduct is unconstitutional.

While arguing that a "strict and narrow construction of the reach of the first sentence of SCR 60.06(3)(c)" required the three-judge panel to recommend that the state Judicial Commission's complaint against Gableman be dismissed, Reserve Judge David Deininger wrote: "It is more than a bit ironic that Justice Gableman has been represented in this matter by an able lawyer who, it might be argued, 'found a loophole.'"

Ironic because Gableman's ad said "Louis Butler worked to put criminals on the street. Like Reuben Lee Mitchell, who raped an 11-year-old girl with learning disabilities. Butler found a loophole. Mitchell went on to molest another child."

Monday, November 09, 2009

Did Reformers Get Help From Above?

Mike Wittenwyler is an exceptionally bright guy. I'd have no trouble saying Mike is smarter than me, but it would be most unfair to damn him with such faint praise.

Several publications have recognized him as a "top lawyer" and "rising star" in his area of expertise, which is political law. He teaches the subject at UW Law School. The highest of the high and mighty in this state turn to him for counsel. In campaign finance and election law matters, his clients include the Association of Wisconsin Lobbyists, Wisconsin Bankers Association, Wisconsin Builders Association, Wisconsin Education Association Council, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Right to Life.

When Mike Wittenwyler talks, powerful people listen. Which makes something he said last December all the more memorable and intriguing. He told a Wisconsin State Journal reporter, "If anyone is able to get public financing through this Legislature I would call them Moses."

This is not a man prone to idle gossip or flights of fancy, mind you. So when legislation establishing publicly financed state Supreme Court elections got through both houses of the Legislature last week, inquiring minds had to be wondering. . . . Did he know something? Was this a Nostradamus moment? Was the Impartial Justice bill heaven sent? Did legislative backers and the likes of the Democracy Campaign, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have a secret weapon?

Someone should be asking Mike Wittenwyler why those waters parted last Thursday. Seems like it might be one of the greatest stories ever told.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Sisyphus Pushes It Over The Top

I've long since lost count of the number of times the cause of campaign finance reform has been compared to the Myth of Sisyphus. Until yesterday, the storyline aptly applied to the effort to pass the Impartial Justice bill.

The legislation had been introduced every session since 1999. On a couple of occasions, it was passed in one house but never both.

Yesterday the Legislature approved what easily qualifies as the most significant campaign reform in Wisconsin in more than 30 years. The governor has said he will sign it. Not since 1977 has anything of this magnitude been enacted in this state.

Wisconsin became the first state to enact public financing legislation this year and only the third to ever adopt judicial public financing. North Carolina and New Mexico being the others.

Thank you to all who telephoned, e-mailed and personally met with their legislators to urge them to support this historic reform. And thank you to all the state lawmakers who took a stand for a nonpartisan, independent Supreme Court and fair and impartial justices.

You made history.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

. . . So Help Us God

The Associated Press summed it all up:

"The Wisconsin Supreme Court adopted rules Wednesday allowing judges to hear
cases involving their biggest campaign contributors, siding with business interests and rejecting calls for changes.

Voting 4-3, the court approved rules saying donations by groups and individuals to judges and independent spending to help them get elected do not by themselves require judges to step aside from cases.

The additions to the judicial code of conduct were proposed by two powerful Wisconsin business groups, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and adopted without a single change

No one who was in the chamber yesterday could have been surprised by the outcome, as the majority of justices wore their preconceived notions on their sleeves.

I certainly expected a good grilling about the Democracy Campaign's view that there should mandatory disqualification of judges in cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. But after watching the League of Women Voters and two national fair courts advocates endure something right out of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692, I suppose I should be grateful that I got questions like these. . . .

Quoting Justice David Prosser:

"Haven't you called me a thief?"

"It seems to me that there probably is some concern about the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and a lot of it is tied directly to you."

"Did you kind of suggest humorously that people might consider poisoning Justice Ziegler?"

OK, that's two questions and a declaration that the messenger should be shot, but not before I am assigned far more influence than I actually have.

On the last question, if Justice Prosser had been willing to read the offending passage in its entirety, it would have been clear that I did not suggest, jokingly or otherwise, that Justice Ziegler be poisoned. I was commenting on a remark made by state Appeals Court Judge Ralph Adam Fine.

As for the thief question, here is the item Prosser evidently was referring to. And here is more on the subject. If Prosser had allowed an airing of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God, and not just the fragment of truth that reinforces his already-made-up mind, this would have been known to all in the room: First, it was Scott Jensen's lawyers who filed a brief asserting that Justice Prosser agreed to testify that when he was Assembly speaker he had engaged in the same conduct that yielded felony charges against top legislative leaders including Jensen. Second, it was the state's attorneys who called the conduct "theft from the public" (go here and see page six) and a trial judge who called it "secretive but highly organized theft" as well as "common thievery elevated to a higher plane."

For the record, I stand by everything I have written concerning Justice Prosser and I rest easy in the knowledge that anyone who reads what I've written will judge for themselves whether I have shown the "reckless disregard for the truth" that Prosser claims I have exhibited.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is Stealing Brett Favre Not Enough?

Minnesota. So close and yet so far. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota have sitting governors who are not running for reelection. Amazingly few here are pondering a bid for the opening and even fewer have actually jumped in the race, while just across the border dozens in both parties as well as a couple of independents are jockeying for a shot at the state's top office, and nearly 20 candidates already have thrown their hats into the ring.

What's Minnesota got that we ain't got?

Well, for starters, Minnesota has enforceable spending limits that come along with a functioning system of publicly financed state elections. Candidates there who qualify for public financing have to limit their campaign spending to just over $2 million and get nearly half of that in public funds.

In Wisconsin, on the other hand, we endured a $32 million race the last time around. The winning candidate spent over $10 million. Because we do not have a working public financing system, all of that money had to be raised privately. Creating a field day for special interests. And a huge deterrent to any prospective candidates who are not independently wealthy or willing to take out a second mortgage on their soul.

Aside from Brett Favre, what's Minnesota got that we ain't got? A race for governor that does not have a multi-million dollar entry fee.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Throwing In The Towel On Civics

I got to be a fly on the wall at a discussion of Supreme Court elections last night. Two groups of about 10 or 12. One men, the other women.

In a scene right out of one of Leno's "Jaywalking" segments, none of the men could name a single member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. One spoke of "that short lady" (presumably Shirley Abrahamson) in an unsuccessful attempt to jog the memories of his fellows. Another mentioned "the woman who works for the banks." (Ouch.) Nobody came up with Annette Ziegler's name either.

The women were better, but not much. Several talked about how horrible the last Supreme Court election was. When asked what was bad about it, one mentioned the "Loophole Louie" ad but couldn't remember much more. Another mentioned "that ad Gableman did." No one pointed out that the election in question was held in 2008. No one seemed to have a clue that there was a more recent election for Supreme Court held earlier this year.

In a speech I gave at this year's Fighting Bob Fest that was later turned into a newspaper commentary, I listed 12 essential nutrients every democracy needs. On my list, #7 is citizenship and #8 is civic education. Judging from what I saw last night, #7 is on thin ice. And judging from a recent column written by a journalist-turned-schoolteacher, so is #8. Among her observations is this:

"For a while, we skipped social studies every Monday while students took standardized tests. It got cut when school let out early for teachers' professional development. Then one day, after a school assembly ran long and I had to administer a math skills assessment, our social studies class was whittled down to just 15 minutes. I threw in the towel."

As I said a month ago on stage and in print, there can be a ruling class or there can be democracy, but there cannot be both. If we are partial to democracy, then preparing our nation's youth to be citizens needs to be as front and center as preparing them to be economically productive.

Any thoughts on the subject Tony Evers?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Old Glory Is So Yesterday

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide a case - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission - that started as a narrow dispute over whether federal election laws should have applied to a pay-per-view cable TV documentary savaging Hillary Clinton that was to air during the 2008 presidential primary elections.

As previously noted, Chief Justice John Roberts expanded the court's review to include two earlier Supreme Court rulings upholding restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Many court observers believe five of the nine justices favor reversing those precedents.

So at a time of corporate excess and irresponsibility not seen in our land since the Gilded Age, the court appears poised to rule that corporations do not have enough political clout and should be allowed to spend even more freely in elections. And rule thusly in the name of the First Amendment.

Never mind the word "corporation" does not appear in the First Amendment. Nor does the word appear even once in the entire U.S. Constitution for that matter. These justices who call themselves "strict constructionists" and claim to be faithful to the original text of the Constitution are getting ready to sweep away century-old laws banning corporate election spending.

Roberts and his ideological soulmates will not be able to base such a decision on what the Constitution actually says. Nor will they be able to find any predecessor on the nation's highest court who wrote a decision proclaiming that corporations are people and possess the same rights as flesh-and-blood citizens, including those rights spelled out under the First Amendment. Instead, the Roberts court will have to take this guy's word for it.

Bancroft Davis. Former president of a railroad company. As the court reporter for the U.S. Supreme Court, he gave railroad companies a great gift in 1886 when he added a comment to the high court's ruling in a case involving the taxation of railroad properties. And in so doing, this one man gave all corporations a great gift by inventing the pseudolegal doctrine of corporate personhood. Out of thin air.
If the current Supreme Court rules in Citizens United the way many legal experts expect, the handiwork of Bancroft Davis will be affirmed and further cemented in place.
If the Roberts court does this, it will not just be naked judicial activism. It will not simply be the very thing they claim to abhor - legislating from the bench. These "strict constructionists" will be effectively rewriting the Constitution.
What next? Redesign the flag? To capture the essence of the Roberts court's mindset, it will need to look this one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What? There Are Two Parties?

As we continue to wait for the Democrats who control both Washington and Madison to actually do something about money's paralyzing grip on our politics, my thoughts stray to my father.

To dad, politics was simple. He never worked on a political campaign. He belonged to no civic groups. He was a dairy farmer, which occupied him from sunup to sundown seven days a week. He had an eighth-grade education. All he knew about politics came from religiously reading the newspaper. To his dying day, he never once so much as turned on a computer.

Republicans were for the rich, Democrats were for the poor. Republicans favored business. Democrats sided with labor. Democrats made war, Republicans brought on depression. Economically speaking, that is.

He never said so at the supper table, but for most of his life Dixie was home to the Democratic Party. After standing for slavery, Democrats were stalwarts for segregation. Republicans were abolitionists. The party of Lincoln.

Because dad didn't speak of it and because children were to be seen and not heard, no one in our family talked about the political realignment brought on by LBJ signing all the civil rights legislation. Nixon's southern strategy was never a topic of table talk.

Maybe such shifts in the tectonic plates of politics were unwelcome complexity. Republicans are for the rich, Democrats are for the poor. Republicans favor business. Democrats support labor. Democrats make war, Republicans depression. Republicans are tight with a buck. Democrats spend like drunken sailors.

It's hard to say what dad would make of politics today. Republicans are still for the rich, but so are the Democrats. Both are money parties and both now get most of their loot from business. Unions still prefer Democrats, but the Democrats get five times as much money from business and are reluctant as hell to ever cross the guys holding the capital.

No one talks much about the poor. The most Democrats are willing to say is they are for "working families," whatever that means. Wisconsin used to have usury laws. No lender could charge more than 18% interest. Today loan sharks charge the poor over 500%, and the Assembly's top Democrat says capping interest rates at 36% "goes too far." Especially because "there's a lot of jobs that are impacted if you just eliminate the industry." One of his lieutenants who chairs the financial institutions committee justified inaction by pointing out that loan sharks "did not create poverty. It was there before they got there." This from the party of the poor.

Both parties are fond of war. But the Democrats clearly have surrendered the mantle of war party. Prominent Democratic hawks, like Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn, are long gone. If anything, it's the Republicans who are today's masters of the military-might-equals-national-security mantra.

Neither party is fiscally responsible. Any Republican claim of being better stewards of taxpayer money is demolished by the history of federal deficits since Eisenhower's day. Democrats haven't been bashful about running up debt, but Republicans have done it with even more reckless abandon. Obama is well on his way to evening the score, though.

The political calculus on race has been turned upside down. Today it's the Republicans who most overtly and zealously court the white vote. And it's the Democrats who are friendlier to racial minorities that are fast becoming majorities. Given this emerging demographic reality, it's hard to see how this is a sustainable posture for the GOP.

Circling back to money's influence in politics, it's long since been forgotten that great populist reformers like Teddy Roosevelt and Fighting Bob La Follette were Republicans. The Republican Party is now squarely in money's camp. But so, unquestionably, are the Democrats.

Which leads to the question: What would TR and Fighting Bob do today?

They'd probably do what they did then. Ruthlessly battle their partisan enemies. And fight those on their own side just as fiercely. And then maybe try starting a new party.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Clock Keeps Ticking, Justice Keeps Waiting In Jensen Case

On the right side of our blog's main page above the links, you'll find a clock keeping the time that has passed since former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen was charged with criminal misconduct in public office for his role in the Capitol caucus scandal. We'll keep it there until the Jensen case is finally brought to closure one way or the other. It will serve as an ongoing reminder of the vast difference between the treatment of ordinary citizens and a prominent political figure in our criminal justice system.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Increasingly Impersonal Nature Of Being A Person

Other than house-elves, politicians are about the only ones you'll ever hear refer to themselves in the third person. It's an annoying but fairly uncommon habit, even among the political class. There's even a word for it - illeism - but it's hardly a must-have in one's vocabulary.

More common in political-speak is the majestic plural. Nearly every politician nowadays is guilty of this one. Individual persons turning themselves into groups is weird, but that weirdness takes on greater currency now that there's renewed attention being paid to the U.S. Supreme Court's created-out-of-thin-air doctrine that corporations are people.

With the Supremes now seriously thinking of taking this pseudolegal dogma to ridiculous new extremes by letting corporations spend freely in elections, the New York Times asked today in an editorial where the judicial invention of corporate personhood will end. Will they get the right to vote? To hold office? To bear arms?

Good questions. But the sign to really watch for is when they start speaking of themselves in the first person.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Indiana Lawyer Defending Gableman

As state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman set out to fight off charges of judicial misconduct, either he felt there was not suitable legal representation to be found in Wisconsin or he couldn't find an attorney in the state who would represent him.

The technically nonpartisan Gableman has gone into battle with James Bopp of the Terre Haute, Indiana law firm Bopp, Coleson and Bostrom as his counsel. Bopp is best known as an anti-abortion lawyer as well as the lead attorney in all the legal challenges to the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. But Bopp also is a member of the Republican National Committee who was part of a small band from the committee's far-right flank that sought to rig the selection process for RNC chair. He then showed his dissatisfaction with the party's choice as he sharply criticized new chair Michael Steele in April for refusing to call President Barack Obama a "socialist."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's In The Water In Lake Geneva?

When Washington and Madison politics threatens to drive you insane, there's a need for some comic relief. Leave it to Lake Geneva.

The posh resort community is in a state of anarchy after the mayor attempted a banana republic-style coup, suspending four political opponents from the City Council and attempting to replace them with allies who happened to have been defeated in the last election by - you guessed it - none other than the four aldermen the mayor aims to oust.

The overthrow hit at least a temporary snag when the remaining council members balked at meeting to consider the appointed replacements. Leaving Lake Geneva without a functioning government, at least for the time being.

OK, so this is no laughing matter if you're in Lake Geneva. But with Congress and the Legislature returning to work after summer recess, there is both amusement and comfort in the knowledge that madness is not necessarily confined to capitals.

Monday, September 14, 2009

12 Things Every Democracy Needs

The following is excerpted from the text of the speech I gave at Saturday's Fighting Bob Fest entitled "A Democracy Worthy of the Name."

There are some things no true democracy can do without. Think of these as 12 minimum daily requirements, a basic subsistence diet:

1. Free speech

2. A free and independent press

3. Legitimate elections

4. Equal justice under the law

5. An ability to distinguish between democracy and commerce

6. An appreciation for and devotion to the commons

7. Citizenship

8. Civic education

9. A distribution of wealth sufficient to sustain a middle class

10. Religious freedom and a separation of church and state

11. Economic freedom and a separation of corporation and state

12. Dissent

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Changes To Records Proposal Hides Information From Public

Wisconsin judges and district attorneys would no longer have to provide information to the public about the property they own under changes made by Democratic legislators to a bill actually meant to increase public access to certain government documents.

The legislative measure was intended to increase public access to Statement of Economic Interest documents filed each year by about 2,100 public officials and others who serve on state boards and commissions. These forms (here and here, for example) describe their economic holdings - like land, buildings, stocks, bonds, business activities and other investments and income. The form also requires them to vaguely disclose the value of each holding.

The legislation would require the Government Accountability Board to post the documents on the Internet. For decades, people who want to see the documents have had to submit a written request, and their names are given to the public officials whose statement are viewed. That practice would stop.

But Democratic Representative Fred Kessler of Milwaukee, a former judge, convinced the committee to change the bill to prohibit the board from releasing information online or in any other form about property owned by judges and district attorneys.

Kessler said he wants the property information for judges and prosecutors kept secret because they are regularly harassed or threatened by people who have been in their courts.

Now no one wants to see judges, prosecutors or any other law enforcement officers put in peril, but the logic for excluding them is hard to pin down.

First, how routinely are judges and prosecutors statewide harassed?

Second, are judges and prosecutors who know the ins and outs of the law better than most of us just letting this pass, and if there is no current remedy, shouldn't there be one regardless of the public access issue raised here?

Third, how would limiting public access to these documents address that problem if the harassment and threats are already occurring?

And finally, some other public officials like state legislators have no doubt experienced harassment and threats so why single out judges and prosecutors for this special treatment?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An Open Letter To John Roberts

Dear Chief Justice,

As you and your colleagues on the Supreme Court deliberate in the Citizens United case, I have two questions for you. Do corporations, labor unions and other organized special interest groups have too little say in the halls of government? Are their voices not adequately heard in election campaigns?

Nearly all Americans would answer "no." Most of the rest would say "hell no!"

The way you and your eight fellow justices answer these questions will decide this case. No pressure, but your answers also will set democracy's course in 21st Century America.


Worried in Wisconsin

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why Hell Froze

The Democracy Campaign issued a most unusual report today, showing that campaign fundraising by Wisconsin legislators in the first half of the year fell to its lowest level since 1999. In fact, after scouring our archives it appears it was utterly unique. I could find no other report documenting a drop in fundraising. I found this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this, but nothing showing the spigot closing.

In our report we attribute the decline in donations to the Assembly's rule banning fundraising during the state budget process. This wasn't mere conjecture on our part. The numbers told a convincing story. Overall fundraising was down, but it was down most sharply in the Assembly.

Nevertheless, since releasing our analysis this morning we've heard from a few who wonder if the economy had more to do with it than the Assembly rule.

Could be. But if the recession was the cause, then fundraising should have been in a tailspin in 2008 because the economy was already in a freefall. That wasn't the case. On the contrary, all kinds of records were broken in last year's legislative elections.

And back in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, the economy sputtered and both charitable contributions and tax collections fell. But the political money kept flowing. In fact, donations to candidates for governor went up six fold over pre-9/11 levels.

What we've seen over the years is a steep and steady upward arc to political giving, regardless of the condition of the economy. It is one of the few things that is truly recession-proof.

Which is why we are convinced that the drop in legislative fundraising in the first six months of 2009 had everything to do with the Assembly ban on budget-season fundraising.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Supremes Ponder Plutocracy

Not many have noticed, but the U.S. Supreme Court is contemplating the mother of all acts of judicial activism. What started as a narrow case dealing with whether federal election laws should apply to a pay-per-view cable TV production called "Hillary: The Movie" has mushroomed into something much bigger, with profound implications for democracy and longstanding federal and state laws guarding against the buying of elections.

After hearing oral arguments in March on the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court's majority decided in late June to expand the scope of issues it will consider, and ordered new arguments in September over whether the court should consider overturning two key precedents involving corporate campaign spending established in a 1990 case, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and 2003's McConnell v. FEC.

The potential consequences are huge. At stake is the future of the 100-year-old wall separating corporation and state that offers at least some protection against the selling of our government. That wall was erected in the form of a 1907 federal law prohibiting corporations from using the capital amassed in their vast treasuries to influence elections as well as Wisconsin's century-old ban on corporate spending in state elections. (A similar federal law applying to labor unions was later enacted and Wisconsin's law is broad and applies to more than just business corporations, as we've noted before.) Also at risk are the new electioneering disclosure rules approved by the state Government Accountability Board but now on hold pending the outcome of the Citizens United case.

If the Supreme Court indeed tears down the old walls and forbids the building of any new ones, it will unleash a new torrent of special interest money into both federal and state elections. Swept away will be laws passed over a century ago by representatives of the people both in Congress and in our state Legislature here in Wisconsin, laws upheld not once but twice by the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

Talk about legislating from the bench.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Better Together Than Alone

The Democracy Campaign is a founding member of the Midwest Democracy Network, a regional alliance of groups in five Great Lakes states devoted to achieving economies of scale in the reform community that allow groups to do work collectively and regionally that none of them could likely do alone in their respective states. WDC is represented on the network's five-member steering committee. This video tells more of the story. . . .

What is the Midwest Democracy Network? from Midwest Democracy Network on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fundraising Ban Widely Effective, BUT. . .

A review of campaign finance reports filed so far shows widespread adherence to a rule banning campaign fundraising by members of the Assembly during the state budget process.

However, if the reports accurately reflect when the contributions were received, four Assembly representatives violated the ban in effect during legislative action on the 2009-11 budget. The reports filed as of early Thursday cover fundraising and spending activity in the first six months of 2008 by about one-fourth of the Assembly.

The Assembly ban approved in February called on its 99 members not to accept or solicit any campaign contributions for themselves or other campaign committees beginning the day the budget bill is introduced in the legislature, which was February 17, and ending on the date it is presented to the governor, which was June 29.

Democrats Fred Clark of Baraboo and Ted Zigmunt of Francis Creek accepted $600 and $2,050 in contributions, respectively, on February 17. Republican Rich Zipperer of Pewaukee accepted $450 in contributions February 17 and Republican Keith Ripp of Lodi accepted a $57.80 in-kind contribution June 25.

Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber of Appleton received $3,025 before the ban and a $50 contribution on June 16 which she returned to the contributor.

A report filed by veteran Democrat Robert Turner of Racine shows he raised $11,065 in individual and political action committee contributions from March 24 through April 24. But the ban allowed Assembly members to accept contributions to run for other elected offices. Turner unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Racine in a May 5 special election.

Republican Kevin Petersen of Waupaca made $1,610 in in-kind contributions and a personal loan to his campaign during the ban.

The Democracy Campaign found numerous Assembly members got contributions before the ban took effect, according to their campaign reports. Democrat Mark Radcliffe of Black River Falls accepted $1,880 in contributions February 13 and 14 and Democratic Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan of Janesville accepted $500 February 2. Republicans Bill Kramer of Waukesha got $500, Robin Vos of Racine got $4,525 and Jim Ott of Mequon and Gary Tauchen of Bonduel each raised $100 - all before the ban.

So far, representatives who reported getting no individual or PAC contributions during the entire six-month period are:

Republican Representatives Dan Meyer of Eagle River, Roger Roth of Appleton, Samantha Kerkman of Genoa City, Richard Spanbauer of Oshkosh, Don Friske of Merrill, Mark Gottlieb of Port Washington and Pat Strachota of West Bend;

Democratic Representatives Jim Soletski of Green Bay, David Cullen of Milwaukee, Marlin Schneider of Wisconsin Rapids, Mary Hubler of Rice Lake, Chuck Benedict of Beloit and Joe Parisi and Spencer Black, both of Madison.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Hard Times For Fat Cats

Is a recession in the political economy right around the corner? Bill Kraus thinks so.

He might end up being right. Bill's a seasoned political veteran who knows the lay of the land in campaigns as well as anyone. If he looks into his crystal ball and sees belt-tightening for the political class, then it at least has to be considered a plausible scenario.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

I say that for two reasons. First, the overall economy was already in recession in 2008 but political giving and campaign spending were up. Way up. Second, if you count up all the donors to state campaigns in the Democracy Campaign's online database, they amount to only about 1% of Wisconsin's population. If the masses were making campaign contributions, then you'd expect political giving to drop off during an economic downturn. But only 1% does all the donating, and it tends to be the upper crust, the least likely to have been seriously impacted by the recession.

For these reasons, it's my guess that the political economy will remain recession-proof.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Familiar Dodge

The tale of missing travel receipts that was told over the weekend by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a familiar ring to it. What has evidently now become standard operating procedure in at least the upper echelons of the executive branch was once an all-too-common election campaign practice that was exposed and then banned in early 2006.

We started noticing that credit card transactions by campaigns were being reported in a way that made it impossible to determine who was being paid for goods or services rendered. Campaign finance reports would attribute vaguely described expenses to the credit card company and not the vendor who was the actual recipient of the campaign funds. Governor Jim Doyle was among the worst offenders.

The state Elections Board was called upon to prohibit the practice and require meaningful disclosure of how money is really changing hands in campaign business transacted by credit card. In March 2006, the board did just that, adopting a new policy requiring campaigns to disclose the vendor's name and address as well as the date, amount and purpose of any expense over $20.

Doyle evidently didn't take any lesson from that episode because the veil he has been routinely throwing over expenses related to his travel as governor is eerily reminiscent of the one his campaign used to throw over all manner of spending he did while seeking the office in the first place.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Why Do Politicians Really Cry?

"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

GAB To Sue Eight Legislative Candidates For Not Filing Campaign Reports

A state agency plans to sue four legislators and four unsuccessful legislative candidates claiming they have not filed year-end 2008 campaign finance reports due five months ago.

The four legislators are incumbent Democratic Representatives Tamara Grigsby, Annette Williams and Christine Sinicki and Republican Representative Scott Newcomer. The four others, who lost in the 2008 primary or general elections, were Republicans Jess Kufahl, David Nickel and Jason LaSage and Democrat Perry Duman.

Campaign finance reports for these and 14 other candidates were the subject of a first-ever open records request asking the Government Accountability Board to make the records - due February 2 - available to the public or investigate the candidates for breaking state campaign finance laws.

The availability and accuracy of campaign finance reports for dozens of 2008 legislative candidates have been a problem for months because of the board's new electronic filing system implemented last fall. Reports generated by the system have been fraught with problems that include incorrect fundraising and spending totals, wrongly identified expenditures, and contributions and expenditures listed multiple times.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Prosser Not Hearing Jensen Appeal

UPDATE: A spokesman for the Wisconsin Supreme Court notified our office today that Justice David Prosser is not participating in the court's review of former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's appeal of lower court rulings that his retrial must be held in Dane County, not his home county of Waukesha as he desires.

No word yet on whether Justice Prosser plans to once again serve as a character witness for Jensen. Pertinent to this issue is the Supreme Court's own rule, SCR 60.03(2), which states: "A judge may not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge's judicial conduct or judgment. A judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or of others or convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge. A judge may not testify voluntarily as a character witness (emphasis added)."

The plain meaning of this rule prohibits a judge like Justice Prosser from lending the prestige of his office and the court to advance the private interests of a defendant like Scott Jensen. And it clearly prohibits any judge subject to this state rule from voluntarily testifying as a character witness. Which begs the question, is there such a thing as an unwilling character witness?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Which Justices Will Decide Jensen's Fate This Time?

For the second time, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear an appeal by Scott Jensen as the surrealistically drawn-out saga of corruption charges against the former Assembly speaker stretches well into its seventh year.

Jensen was originally charged in October 2002, and it was back in early 2005 when the high court first agreed to hear an appeal in this case. That time, Jensen was joined by other legislators caught up in the Capitol scandal as well as a former aide in an attempt to have the charges against them dismissed. The court barely had a quorum to take up the case because three justices recused themselves due to close personal or political ties to the defendants.

A fourth - Justice Patrick Crooks - heard the appeals despite having had Jensen as his campaign manager in 1995 and 1996. Crooks also received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Jensen's campaign committees and the justice's campaign finance reports listed payments of nearly $27,000 to a firm run by Jensen's wife for campaign work. More on that in a bit.

The court ultimately rejected the appeals and allowed the charges to stand. Jensen was eventually convicted and sentenced to prison, but his conviction was later overturned on a technicality in November 2007 and he was granted a new trial. Jensen has been trying ever since to get the location of the new trial switched from Dane County, where the crimes he's accused of are alleged to have occurred, to his home county of Waukesha. Two lower courts have turned him down, but now the Supreme Court will review those rulings.

At least two justices have no business participating in this decision. Justice Crooks has the aforementioned conflicts of interest. And Justice David Prosser served with Jensen in the Assembly where the two were close political allies. Moreover, Prosser agreed to serve as a character witness for Jensen in his first trial. He called Jensen a "person of the highest integrity" whom he had "always trusted." He went on to say Jensen is an "honest person and a fair person" and when asked during cross-examination if his opinion of Jensen would change if he knew Jensen lied in interviews with law enforcement officials, Prosser simply said "no."

What's more, Prosser admitted that when he was Assembly speaker he engaged in the same conduct that Jensen is being prosecuted for.

There is no way in hell either Prosser or Crooks should be anywhere in the room when the Supreme Court hears this latest appeal and then decides where the second trial of Scott Jensen will take place.

Friday, June 12, 2009

113 Million Reasons Why Not

The need for health care reform in America is obvious. It's long past time for action, yet Washington has been paralyzed. The fact that 46 million Americans are without health insurance and some 28 million are underinsured has yet to stir the nation's politicians.

The fact that insurance costs have played no small role in the demise of the American automobile industry has yet to infuse them with the courage of conviction.

The fact that providing health coverage is a crushing burden to small businesses that is stunting the growth of the national economy's most powerful engine hasn't done the trick either.

Why not?

Oh, the politicians in Washington have their reasons. Millions of them. Like the $47 million in campaign contributions federal candidates received from the insurance industry in 2008 alone. And the $29 million in donations pharmaceutical companies gave to federal politicians for last year's election. And then there's the nearly $23 million national office seekers got in 2008 from the hospitals and other for-profit health facilities. Another $14 million was dumped into campaign coffers last year by the HMOs and other health service gatekeepers.

That's a total of $113 million. One hundred and thirteen million reasons why Washington hasn't yet been moved by the heart-wrenching stories of countless people dying needlessly for lack of access to medical care and countless others driven to financial ruin simply because they had the misfortune of getting sick.

One hundred and thirteen million reasons why the best and most efficient solution to our country's broken health care system has been kept off the table.

One hundred and thirteen million reasons why the richest nation on earth turns a blind eye to pain and suffering and economic calamity, and why its leaders put the profits of the few ahead of the needs of the many.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Political Lightning Delays Play

UPDATE: Shortly after the Democracy Campaign posted a blog about a June 15 mega fundraiser, numerous media reports and editorials condemned the event and prompted Assembly Democratic leaders to postpone it until after the legislature finishes its work on the 2009-11 state budget.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Assembly Democrats' Fundraiser Appears Out Of Bounds

If their own rules are followed, one of the Assembly Democrats' biggest fundraisers of the year is going to be void of Assembly Democrats.

The June 15 event is at the Wild Rock Golf Club at Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells. Contributors who want to play will pay $1,000 each, or $3,350 per foursome. Duffers who want to pay but not play can still get involved by sponsoring a hole for $750 or the entire event for $1,000. In addition to the outrageous fees - a.k.a. required campaign contributions - it's offering outrageous hole-in-one prizes to the well-heeled special interests and lobbyists who attend - $50,000 and a new Chevy Tahoe.

A notice about the event says its special guest will be Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan along with "other reps and guests."

Here's the problem. Last February the Assembly passed a rule banning its 99 Republican and Democratic members from holding fundraisers or even accepting or soliciting campaign contributions "during the period beginning on the day the biennial budget bill is introduced and ending on the date the biennial budget bill is presented to the Governor."

Sheridan said this week the Assembly plans to take up the budget June 10 and send it to the Senate shortly thereafter. However, Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker said the Senate doesn't plan to take up the budget until the third week in June. On top of that if the Senate changes the Assembly's version of the budget in any way, a committee of legislators from both houses will meet to hammer out a compromise budget that must be approved without changes by both houses before it is sent to the governor.

The golf fundraiser is sponsored by the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, which is one of four legislative campaign committees controlled by Democratic and Republican Assembly and Senate leaders to soak special interests for campaign cash. These committees, which were exempt from the fundraising ban, raise money to help their respective caucus members get elected.

But the rule commendably spearheaded by majority Democrats clearly prohibits Assembly members from raising money for their own campaigns as well as soliciting cash for other committees that could provide them with election year resources.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Journalism In Retreat

My, how things have changed.

A white elephant of a computer project, badly bungled by a state agency. The public denied access for four months to records detailing how politicians raised and spent money. The kind of stuff newspapers and other media would have been all over five years ago or, hell, even a year ago.

On Monday, the Democracy Campaign did something we've never before had to do. We filed an open records request to try to get our hands on about two dozen missing campaign finance reports that were supposed to be submitted by office holders and candidates for state office and made available for public inspection at the end of January. Not a single newspaper in the state wrote a word about it. Radio and television ignored the story, too, with the exception of one lonely community radio station in Madison.

People used to complain about "pack journalism," when seemingly the entire press corps would chase the same story, intensely competing to scoop each other and going to extreme lengths to unearth a new wrinkle or different dimension to a story. Today we have the opposite extreme on display. No one is telling a good many stories the public needs to know about.

We're in deep trouble. Ignorance and democracy are not compatible.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lost In Translation

Sometimes the right question can be asked, a correct answer can be given, and still there's profound misunderstanding. A line of questioning at Wednesday's public hearing on the Electioneering Disclosure bill closing the "issue ad" loophole provided a vivid illustration.

Senator Randy Hopper asked a legislative staff attorney if the bill treats corporations and labor unions the same. While the answer he received was technically correct, it also was incomplete and open to misinterpretation. Judging from follow-up questions and comments by committee members, it was clear the attorney's response left an inaccurate impression.

Senator Hopper and his colleagues were told a longstanding Wisconsin law bans corporations from making contributions or spending money for a "political purpose" and since the disclosure bill defines phony issue ads as communications done for a political purpose, corporations are prohibited from funding them. All of that is correct. It's what the attorney didn't say that created the problem. When the attorney used the word corporation, the legislators evidently heard "for-profit business." But under state law the term "corporation" does not only mean a for-profit company. It means any incorporated entity or organization. Labor unions are incorporated. Their names don't typically tip off their corporate structure, although a few do (witness Madison Teachers Inc.). Non-profit organizations are incorporated. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is a not-for-profit corporation.

The effect of existing Wisconsin law is to prohibit any incorporated entity from using treasury funds for a "political purpose." These organizations may form political action committees, however, to engage in political activity. The practical effect of the disclosure bill, if it becomes law, would be to require any campaign advertising or other electioneering activity to be done through a registered PAC, regardless of whether the organization is a for-profit business, a labor union or a non-profit group. All incorporated entities would be treated the same, thus creating a truly level playing field for all participants.

Not only do PACs have to register and report their sources of income and the amount they spend, but they also have to obey limits in current state law on campaign contributions they receive. An individual can give a maximum of $10,000 to a PAC. That's the same limit on donations to candidates for statewide offices such as governor or Supreme Court justice. Like candidates, PACs cannot accept donations from the treasuries of incorporated entities. So special interest groups doing campaign advertising would not be able to take money from the general treasuries of labor unions, for-profit businesses or non-profit organizations. They would have to raise their money from individuals in amounts not exceeding $10,000. Just like candidates for statewide office.

The issue ad disclosure bill truly would put interest groups on the same footing as candidates, and the way it treats businesses is no different than the way it treats labor unions or any other incorporated organization.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dem Golf Fundraiser Tees Up Pricey Prizes

In these tough times families, businesses and even most states are slashing spending, reexamining their needs and eliminating extravagances.

But not the Senate Democrats who want to attract a lot of lobbyists to raise a boat load of money at the annual State Senate Democratic Committee golf fundraiser this Friday (May 29) at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva.

To make those $900 per golfer entry fees more palatable, the committee is offering some nice door prizes.

New this year is two hole-in-one contests whose prizes are $50,000 and a new car.

It's legal, according to the Government Accountability Board. The committee bought an insurance policy for around $1,000 that will pay out in case one or both of the prizes are won.

In addition, each member of the foursome that gets the lowest team score wins a $500 stay-and-play package at Grand Geneva. The winners of the longest drives by a male and a female and the winner of the longest putt each get $100 golf shop gift cards.

So who's paying who to play?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wisconsin TARP Recipients Spent $144,000+ On Lobbying, Contributions

Executives at four Wisconsin banks that have gotten nearly $2.4 billion in federal bailout money spent more than $144,000 on lobbying and campaign contributions to Wisconsin legislative candidates and the governor in 2008 when the economy tanked.

The biggest spenders were executives at M&I banks. M&I Bank Corporation in Milwaukee also received the most bailout funds - $1.7 billion. M&I bank executives contributed $68,400 to Wisconsin political candidates in 2008. Another $725 came from the bank's political action committee, and M&I spent an additional $59,124 lobbying state government last year.

M&I currently opposes a legislative proposal that would put wages owed to employees ahead of money owed to banks when a business goes bankrupt.

Associated Banc-Corporation in Green Bay received $525 million in bailout money. Executives from its banks contributed $8,975 to 22 legislative candidates and committees and another $1,750 to Governor Jim Doyle in 2008.

Associated Banc's president and chief operating officer resigned last week and gave no reason. She will be paid $1.65 million over the next 10 months as part of a separation agreement.

Anchor BanCorporation in Madison received $110 million in bailout funds after its bank executives contributed $1,800 to Doyle last year and Park Bancorporation in Madison received $23.2 million from the feds after its bank executives gave $2,100 to four legislative candidates and $1,250 to Doyle.

Overall, 14 Wisconsin banks have accepted just under $2.5 billion in federal bailout money so far.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In Search Of A Third Way On Elections

It is a distinct minority, but there are those who believe the best way to deal with disfigured elections for Wisconsin Supreme Court justices is to get rid of them. The elections, that is, not the justices.

Despite the fact such a move is politically and practically implausible, as I've blogged before, the debate still simmers. In fact, it was a matter of considerable discussion at the State Bar of Wisconsin annual convention in Milwaukee a little over a week ago, where I debated Wisconsin State Journal publisher Bill Johnston in a session on the topic moderated by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

A legislator here and there with encouragement from a media commentator or two are floating the idea of going even farther and doing away with the state's nonpartisan spring elections altogether.

There's no denying that Wisconsin's spring elections leave a great deal to be desired. For one thing, voter turnout has been abysmal. But why is the kneejerk reaction to unsatisfying elections seemingly always a call to get rid of them? Why is the menu of options limited to poor elections or no elections? Isn't there a third way?

Of course there is. We could focus on making the spring elections more innovative and compelling and worthy of the average voter's attention. We could experiment with voting by mail or multi-day voting or weekend voting.

Or even better yet, we could move to ranked choice voting. It's working in other parts of the country. The best known variant of ranked choice voting – Instant Runoff Voting – would save taxpayers money by eliminating the need for the February primary, the lowest of the low-turnout spring elections. IRV gives voters greater ability to express their preferences and is a truer reflection of the will of the people. And it all but does away with the annoying phenomena of "spoiler" candidates and "wasted" votes.

What's not to like? More importantly, what do we have to lose? Other than our elections, I mean.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Smear By Any Other Name

After issuing our report yesterday on campaign advertising by special interest groups in this spring's elections, we got a fair amount of feedback from people who took sharp exception to our headline characterizing the sponsors of the ads as "smear groups." The report focused primarily on two left-leaning organizations – Greater Wisconsin Committee and Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union.

A smear is obviously in the eye of the beholder, and those on the right rip us every time we use disparaging language to describe attack ads done by right-wing groups and people on the left rip us when we condemn attacks by left-wing groups. People see these ads through their own ideological lens.

I look at WEAC's TV ad in the school superintendent race, for example, and can't help but see it as self-serving, misleading and sleazy. The union even photoshopped a picture of candidate Rose Fernandez to take the smile off her face. Seriously. Watch the ad and compare it to the photo that accompanies this story about the race. It's obviously the same photo but it's been retouched to give Fernandez a dour, rather gruesome expression. To me, that's sleazy.

As for the content of the ad, it says the report cards are in and Tony Evers gets all "A's" while Fernandez gets an incomplete and a couple of "F's." No real evidence is offered to support the conclusion that Evers deserves such grades, and likewise there is the flimsiest justification for the failing marks given to Fernandez.

Sorry, but I think it's neither a stretch nor unfair to label an ad a smear when it makes unsubstantiated claims adulating one candidate and demonizing another, and then stoops to doctoring a picture to make its point.

We stand by our characterization.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Problem Behind Every Problem

On Earth Day six years ago, I gave a speech to a small audience on the UW-Madison campus. I wouldn't change a word if I made it again today. If anything, I would attach a greater sense of urgency to the message.

I said then that the greatest environmental challenge of our time is the health of our democracy and that clean water will never flow from dirty politics. Follow the money and you see why clean air initiatives are so often blocked too.

It's not just our natural resources that fall prey to dirty politics. United for a Fair Economy is a national group that is concerned about the growing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands in America and how regressive tax policies have encouraged the extreme risk taking, reckless speculation and unchecked greed that have wrecked our economy. But in a critique of President Obama's tax proposals issued two weeks ago, the group identifies the problem behind the problem.

"Like many other industries, the financial industry is enjoying a self-reinforcing cycle between favorable tax treatment and political influence. The more the industry profits from low taxation, the richer it grows. The richer it grows, the more it invests in politicians who will deliver favorable regulations and taxes."

It's not just the investment banks and the big hedge funds that have been playing this game. Look at AIG. Follow the money and you see why AIG was never reined in and then was quickly bailed out once things fell apart. Look at all three industries that are at Ground Zero of the economic implosion. Follow the money and you see why they were allowed to play fast and loose with other people's money and now are being gently tut-tutted for their crimes.

Follow the money and you see why health care reform has had such a hard time getting off the ground in Washington. Or in Madison, for that matter. Speaking of our state capital, look at the Tavern League. Follow the money and you see why the beer tax hasn't been raised in 40 years and why a statewide ban on smoking in public places enjoys such broad public support but has been such a tough sell to state legislators.

Follow the money and you see why payday lenders – a sanitized name for loan sharks – have been left totally unregulated in Wisconsin. Look even more closely and you begin to see why a lot of things that seem so totally out of character for Wisconsin are happening.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people I run into in my travels who have a hard time seeing why politics matters and how government is important to their lives. Self evident as it might be, they don't seem to see that the richest and most privileged in our society clearly believe politics matters a great deal and are convinced government is of the utmost importance. They've invested vast fortunes to warp the rules government makes in their favor. And they've reaped even greater fortunes from those investments.

As many people as I encounter who aren't putting two and two together, I find even more who get it but still are paralyzed when it comes to doing something about it. I can't help but suspect that's because we've all been taught – brainwashed, really – from a very early age to be consumers first and foremost, not citizens.

Of the problems behind every problem, that's the biggest one of all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Self-Inflicted Gunshot Wound

To paraphrase Casey Stengel, the secret to responsible gun ownership is to keep those who irrationally fear the president the hell away from those who are undecided.

The NRA and other right-wing groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks have been whipping gun owners into a sky-is-falling frenzy by spinning a yarn about how President Obama supports a 500% tax increase on ammunition, a claim that says "distorts Obama's position on gun control beyond recognition."

Absence of fact has not prevented this rumor from growing legs, to the point where there's been a run on ammo across the country. Gun show business is booming, with one merchant reporting that gun and ammo prices already have doubled. Another gun shop owner says he saw a 55% increase in gun sales in one month and "they're out of everything right now."

It looks like gun owners are well on their way to imposing that 500% tax they fear. . . on themselves.

Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus once called the state lottery a "tax on stupidity." Such penny-ante gambling is pea-sized numbskullery compared to this.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Shortchanged Again

Rich interests and their yes-men in the political class are fond of claiming that negative campaigning is good and the more that is spent on elections the better. The logic behind this line of bull is that no-holds-barred, no-expense-spared politicking creates a spectacle that invariably leads to the civic equivalent of rubbernecking, creating a sense of excitement about the race and building awareness of what is at stake. Which in turn boosts voter turnout. And thus democracy is served.

On a platter.

There was record spending in last year's high court race, and the advertising – whether sponsored by a candidate or outside interest groups – was squarely in the gutter. In this year's contest, spending was somewhere between one-third and a half of what it was in 2008 and the pitches for votes were made from the high road. Yet voter turnout in the two elections was virtually identical – just shy of 20 percent. Which is to say abysmal.

Voters were shortchanged in the 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court elections. We were repeatedly lied to and seats on the state's highest court were bought. But the way this year's race played out is not much better. There was no special interest hijacking like we saw last year and the year before. And we weren't force-fed a diet of deception and character assassination this time around. It's just there wasn't a contest.

Four interest groups did 90 percent of the TV advertising in last year's race. This year, one candidate did almost all the talking. Incumbent Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson not only had a grotesque financial advantage over challenger Randy Koschnick, but she had the one interest group that weighed in on her side too.

For democracy to function at least and flourish at best, every election needs to be a competition of ideas. That means competing candidates are required, not just competing interest groups. Candidates, and not interest groups, need to be front and center because it's the candidates who are on the ballot. But it's equally essential that more than one candidate have the means to get a message out to voters because only then do voters have a meaningful choice about who will best serve the public.

Another reason more than one viable candidate is required is that elections are supposed to be instruments of accountability. Only when there are serious challengers are the views of winning candidates sufficiently challenged and their records adequately scrutinized. And only then are elected officials forced to remain reasonably faithful to those who vote them into office.

By these measures, the last three state Supreme Court races left a great deal to be desired. The most recent fell short for quite different reasons than the previous two, but nonetheless it fell short of what the public deserves and should expect. The experience of these last three elections cries out for reform.