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.