Thursday, April 29, 2010

When Breaking The Law Is No Longer News

For years, we have been using our searchable database of campaign money to identify donors who exceed the legal limit on contributions. We issued another such report yesterday. No news organization in the state wrote so much as a word about our findings, save one college newspaper.

The phone used to ring off the hook when we called attention to these violations in the past. Maybe the change has to do with the decline of newspapers and the general shrinkage of the Capitol news corps. Or maybe it's something else. But I couldn't help but notice that the media started treating this as a non-story a couple of years ago when one of the wealthy donors we flagged screamed bloody murder, accusing me of "smearing" him and his wife with a "tar brush." Only the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel made mention of our findings, and that was limited to a blog posting. Other media organizations wouldn't touch it.

After investigating our charge the state Government Accountability Board found that the donor, John Brogan of Green Bay, did indeed violate the law and the board fined him and his wife Gisela $1,350 each. The GAB's action wasn't made public until almost a year and a half after we issued our report and Brogan threw his hissy fit. To my knowledge, there were no news accounts of the board's handling of the matter.

This past year, we called attention to a bunch more donors that appeared to have given more than state law allows. This time, the investigative turnaround was just over five months and the GAB handed out stiff fines to seven individuals we flagged. That wasn't news either.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The New American Colonies

In the beginning, there were 13. Now there are hundreds of millions. American colonies, that is.

The original 13 declared their independence. More than 230 years later, it remains an open question when or even whether the new colonies will declare theirs.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, as the famous ad slogan tells us. It also seems a terrifyingly easy thing to colonize. Some can be quickly entertained into a stupor. More than a few are easily driven to distraction by busy work or the gazillionth commercial for that-thing-you-simply-cannot-do-without. Countless others are slowly but surely propagandized into a robotic trance. Democracy requires us to think, and a thousand things are perpetually dangled in front of us that are easier or more fun or more lucrative.

When citizenship calls, more often than not there's no one home in the colonies. Poll after poll after poll after poll showed most of us wanted nothing to do with bailing out Wall Street and the banks and the auto industry. Our own elected representatives bailed 'em out anyway. The colonies mustered no resistance. Poll after poll after poll after frickin' poll showed most of us wanted a public insurance option in our health care system. Those who purportedly represent us in Congress ignored our wishes, took the public option off the table early on in the discussions and never allowed it to be seriously considered. They had millions of reasons. There was no revolt in the colonies.

We offer up our best defense. We're too busy making a living. (But not too busy to spend over 150 hours a month watching television.) Life's too this and too that. Politicians are too this and too that. The system's too this and too that. Without coming right out and admitting it, what we're saying is that there's no room on our plate for democracy.

The popular diagnosis of what ails us is apathy. I don't see it. I see plenty of people who care and who despair over what is happening in this country. I see no lack of passion. What I see is powerlessness, which is a totally different animal than apathy. Apathy is when you don't care. With powerlessness, you can care deeply about something but remain convinced there's not a damn thing you can do about it. I see and hear a lot of that.

This colonized state of mind is a curious thing, especially here in Wisconsin of all places. We have to ignore our own history to think the way we do. We live in a place where our ancestors faced social and political challenges a century and some years ago that parallel in so many ways those we encounter today.

As they struggled, they had so much less going for them than we do. Far less education. Way less money. None of our modern means of communication. Yet they rose up against the same kind of unbridled corporate power and corrupt politics that have visited us again. And they beat them. And in so doing, they gave us a great inheritance. They made this special place, known from coast to coast for the better part of a century as a beacon of clean, open and honest government.

We have managed to squander much of our inheritance. But what is done is done. We now have a choice to make. We can let this be the final chapter in our story, or we can write a new one. To those who say it can't be done, I say this: It already has been done. We don't have to make history. We only need to repeat it.

We face nothing today that hasn't been faced and conquered before, right on the very soil we stand on. Nothing, with the possible exception of thoroughly colonized minds.

Friday, April 16, 2010

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Citizens United For Poetic Justice

Note to Citizens United: It's generally wise to be careful what you wish for.

You didn't much like it when we started a protest of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on election financing in the case known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and called it "Citizens United Against Citizens United." You considered our effort trademark infringement and sent us a letter demanding that we cease and desist immediately. Not wanting to encourage frivolous litigation, we happily changed the name of our protest to United Citizens Against Citizens United.

You would have been better off if you'd left well enough alone. The stink you raised inspired hundreds more to join our Facebook group and sign our online petition. And then not long after we dropped the phrase we coined in favor of another that says the same darn thing and is a palindrome to boot, another group snatched up the original.

Part of me wants to say "serves you right." Another part needs to say "thanks."

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

AT&T Pushing More Deregulation

Proposals to sharply reduce state regulation of telephone companies so they would no longer have to receive approval to raise their rates, among other things, could be considered by the legislature before it adjourns the 2009-10 floor session later this month.

Backers of the bills include telecom giant AT&T - which reportedly helped write the legislation - and the cable industry, while opponents include smaller telecommunications companies, grocers, municipal electric utilities, the AFL-CIO, Citizens Utility Board and the Communications Workers of America.

AT&T and the cable industry have contributed $506,974 to candidates for statewide office and the legislature since 2003. Opponents of the measures contributed $643,193 to state candidates from 2003 through 2009.

Business interests, which are split on the measures, contributed $7.25 million candidates during the seven-year period.

The proposals, Assembly Bill 696 and Senate Bill 469, would give AT&T and other telephone companies the option of no longer being classified as telecommunications utilities. That means they would no longer have to receive approval from the state Public Service Commission to change their rates and they would not have to report profit and expense information to the agency. The measures also would strip the PSC's authority over consumer complaints about telephone service and telecoms also would not be required to provide land line service to all parts of the state.

Supporters of the measures argue they would create more options and improve prices through increased competition. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Senator Jeff Plale and Democratic Representative Josh Zepnick, both of Milwaukee.

Plale has received more campaign contributions from AT&T and the cable industry than any other legislative Democrat and ranks third among all of the 132 legislators for contributions by cable providers and the telecom giant. AT&T contributed $4,000 and the cable industry $6,446 to Plale from 2003 through 2009. Zepnick received $1,400 from cable providers and AT&T during the period.

The latest proposals come shortly after AT&T tapped Plale for a 2008 law that deregulated the cable industry and helped make it cheaper, easier and faster for AT&T to provide video products.

The law's supporters argued deregulation would lower costs and increase competition but a legislative audit released last December showed basic cable rates rose an average 21 percent in 2008 and 2009.