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.