Tuesday, July 26, 2011

But Can They Read The Handwriting On The Wall?

I know one thing for sure about Republicans. They can read. I was already aware of their fondness for Ayn Rand, but it's also clear they've got much more than passing familiarity with George Orwell.

They regularly condemn class warfare, even though they are waging an astonishingly effective class war and have been for years. Every time someone suggests that maybe millionaires and billionaires should share in the sacrifice that everyone else is expected to make, they shout "Class War! Class War!" at the top of their lungs. The class war card has become an all-purpose inoculant against any attempt to promote economic and social justice.

Every chance they get they rail against judicial activism and label every liberal judge a judicial activist. The judges they appoint then throw judicial restraint to the wind and take judicial activism to unprecedented heights, radically reinterpreting the First Amendment to serve the purposes of their class war and otherwise reordering society by judicial fiat to usher in a new Gilded Age.

They beseech the American people not to ever allow their elected representatives to raise taxes on the "job creators." Never mind that the U.S. economy was far healthier and producing more jobs here at home when tax rates on businesses and the wealthy were much higher than they are now. And never mind that today's "job creators" are really just profit takers. For working people, economic recovery is when the jobs come back. For those on Wall Street and in the corporate boardrooms, economic recovery is when the profits come back. For them, there's a recovery underway. That it's been a jobless one does not concern them in the least. But when someone suggests that perhaps some of their newfound profits should be plowed back into education or infrastructure repair or green energy investments, a panic attack ensues. They trot out their "don't tax the job creators" line and people fall for it and the profits from their jobless recovery are once again safe.

I know one thing for sure about Democrats. They can read. A.A. Milne at least. They clearly are on cousinly terms with the bear of little brain. And they've got Eeyore's angst and depression and indecision down pat. When the Democrats see the remotest risk, the slightest possibility of a political setback, they sit on their hands.

The Republicans wage class war and the Democrats whine about it and the Republicans accuse them of promoting class warfare. They feed the profit-hungry and the Democrats whine about it and they yell "you can't tax the job creators!" They stack the courts and get the judiciary's blessing of their class war. The Democrats whine about it and are accused of pushing judicial activism.

So Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers and their minions take away worker rights, roll back child labor laws, slash school spending, cut health care assistance to the elderly and poor and disabled, bring back poll taxes and deregulate the phone companies. And they are just getting warmed up.

Hundreds of thousands of working people are inflamed. Walker's collective bargaining bill alone triggered mass protests, the largest ever seen at the State Capitol. Nine senators were targeted for recall, the most ever in Wisconsin history.

Over at Democratic Party headquarters, Pooh sighed "Oh, bother" and Eeyore mumbled "Oh well." The chairman of the state party made remarks widely interpreted as throwing cold water on the idea of mounting an effort to recall Walker as soon as possible. He later backtracked some. Some grassroots Democrats have made it known that top party brass were cool to the idea of ever trying to recall the governor when the subject came up at the party's state convention.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: One party is scary and the other is scared.

One is Ayn Rand's dream and George Orwell's nightmare. The other is A.A. Milne minus the innocence of childhood.

Neither is what our society needs.

Friday, July 22, 2011

P.T. Barnum's Kind Of Taxpayer

It's easy to fathom why a great many people can't seem to bring themselves to care about redistricting. After all, it boils down to drawing maps, which seems dweebish. And it's always been seen as insider politics in its purest form, which most people hate with a passion.

But it's much harder to figure why so few taxpayers are steamed about how their money is being used for dweebish insider politics.

The redistricting process starts with politicians voting to help themselves to as much taxpayer money as they want to pay expensive private lawyers to assist them with their map drawing. This time around, the party in power wrote themselves a blank check while denying the other side any public funds for their own lawyers. So far, about $350,000 of the taxpayers' money has been spent and the meter is still running.

Taxpayers aren't allowed to see the work being done at their expense. The redistricting plans are kept secret until they are ready to be passed by the Legislature. When finally the plans are made public, it becomes apparent why they are kept secret for so long. The new district lines benefit the politicians, not the public.

All of us taxpayers end up paying to have the power of our votes diminished. We all pay to make incumbent office holders more secure. We all pay to make the party in power more likely to stay in power. We all pay and what we get for our money is less responsive representation in the state Legislature and in Congress. We also pay for more partisan division and political polarization because our money is used to draw lines creating as many strongly Republican and overwhelmingly Democratic districts as possible. Politicians hate being in 50-50 districts. So they make us pay to enhance their job security.

And very few of us squawk about it.

Wow. Just wow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Drawn To Power

Article IV, Section 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution requires state legislative districts to be "bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines, to consist of contiguous territory and be in as compact form as practicable."

A contiguous district is one where all parts of the district are connected to each other. In other words, a district where you can travel from any point in the district without crossing the district boundary.

The map for the 78th Assembly District in Madison proposed under the Republican redistricting plan that is set to sail through both houses of the Legislature this week is one example of line drawing that clearly does not meet that constitutional standard.

There are numerous islands floating inside the 78th district that are in fact attached to the 47th, 79th and 80th districts.

It certainly is possible to draw new districts that don't take constitutional requirements like contiguity with a grain of salt. The Democracy Campaign demonstrated that it could be done in the alternative redistricting plan we put forward.

Our plan also does not unnecessarily divide communities like Sheboygan, Marshfield and Beloit into different senate districts the way the GOP plan does. Nor does it divide little towns like Clintonville into two different assembly districts. Or DeForest into three. Or West Allis into four.

It is possible to account for population changes in Wisconsin that have occurred over the last decade without splitting up communities and without playing fast and loose with constitutional obligations . . . if you are not setting out to create distinctly Republican and Democratic districts.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Military For Nothing, Benefit Checks For Free

I want my, I want my, I want my Fox TV. I want my, I want my, I want MSNBC.

Our country has a truth problem. Pretty much no politician can handle telling it. And the American people can't handle hearing it.

The truth is we've been getting a lot of things from our government that we are not paying for. For a very long time.

When we are feeling the least bit afraid or insecure, a new war is started on our behalf. But there is no war tax. There is no rationing of food, gas or clothing like there used to be when we went to war. No scrap drives, no rubber drives.

Not only do we take for granted that our shores will be defended and the mail will be delivered, we expect the food supply to be inspected, hot lunches at school for our kids, our bank accounts insured. We've grown accustomed to a thousand other things big and small, from parks and libraries and police and fire departments to roads and bridges and water treatment and garbage pick-up and financial security in our old age.

No politician of any stripe is telling the American people to stop taking all this for granted. Yet they keep telling us we are overtaxed. Never mind that we are paying less of our incomes in taxes than any time in the last 60 years.

The maddening debt-ceiling talks in Washington are but a political manifestation of America's juvenile attitude about paying our bills. Politicians of every stripe have been telling the American people that they deserve more and more from their government but should pay less and less for what we get. That has sounded like a good deal and we've happily accepted the bargain. But it is a lie we're living.

The truth is government spending must be cut. And taxes need to be raised. Getting less from government while paying more for it sounds like a lousy deal, but if we want to avert financial disaster, it is the truth. We don't want to hear the truth, and the politicians can't bear to tell it. Leaving America in dire straits.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

65,000 Square Miles Surrounded By Sanity

Dave Zweifel wrote the other day about a friend from out of state calling him to ask what the hell is going on in Wisconsin. Good question. And he's not the only one getting it.

We've got the most polarizing governor in America who can't for the life of him see what it is about him that so divides people. Supreme Court justices whose contempt for each other has been put on public display, with name calling eventually escalating to a physical altercation. A legislature that considers itself above longstanding open meetings and open records laws.

We had lawmakers passing a new law allowing Wisconsinites to carry concealed weapons at the same time the Capitol was in virtual lockdown and visitors to the people's house were being subjected to intensive weapons screening.

Weirdness abounds in America's Dairyland.

Voters are not amused. A great many have taken matters into their own hands, prompting an unprecedented number of recall elections.

Painfully ironic though it is, this year is the 100th anniversary of the most remarkable legislative session in Wisconsin history. The nation's first progressive income tax was established. Workers' compensation was invented. Railroads were regulated. The insurance industry was reformed and a state life insurance plan was instituted. Maximum work hours for women and children were set. Vocational and technical education systems were initiated. And that's just a partial accounting of the 1911 legislature's accomplishments.

That all this happened in 1911 was no accident. The stage actually was set much earlier when landmark political reforms were enacted in Wisconsin. In 1897 the crudest forms of corruption such as bribery, illegal voting and election fraud were outlawed (yes, you heard right, these things were not illegal in the first half century of statehood). In 1905 campaign contributions by corporations were banned. Democracy was further strengthened in that amazing 1911 session with the passage of the Corrupt Practices Act requiring candidates to report all sources of their funding and barring elected officials from trading favors, monetary or otherwise, in return for financial support from wealthy donors.

These laws have been badly weakened in recent years, and newer laws like the 34-year-old public financing program for state elections have been swept away entirely. New political pathogens have emerged and have been left largely untreated. What is happening in 2011 is no accident either.

As was the case in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Wisconsin is at a crossroads. The defining question of our moment is the same one that stared the people of our state in the face back then. Which shall rule, wealth or people?

A new report issued yesterday by a national academic research institute suggests an answer is in the offing. The study was based on based on an analysis of data from recent elections in six Midwestern states including Wisconsin. Among other things, the authors offer an assessment of the Democracy Campaign's proposed new approach to election campaign financing, concluding that the "combination of policies would have extraordinarily powerful effects."

The institute estimates our plan would increase the proportion of campaign money coming from $100-and-under donors from the current 19% to as much as 91% of the total. At the same time, the role of $1,000-or-more donors would be cut from the current 34% to 6%, while the role of special interest political action committees (PACs) would shrink from 9% to only 1%.

Game changing, that's what it would be. The report's conclusion, not mine. The report's lead author happens to have a Republican pedigree. He used to write speeches for Dick Cheney when the former vice president was secretary of defense. He also once was a top congressional staffer as associate director of the House Republican Conference.

As was the case in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the problems we face cross partisan boundaries. The question is not which shall rule, Democrats or Republicans? The question is which shall rule, wealth or people?

When Wisconsin answers that question as definitively and effectively as our state did a century ago, the stage will again be set for a legislative session every bit as remarkable as 1911's. Then Wisconsin will come back to its senses.

Can't wait.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Walker Donor Blows Contribution Limit, Gets Reward

A proposal signed into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker was sought by trucking giant Schneider National whose owner exceeded the $10,000 limit on campaign contributions to Walker during his 2010 run for governor.

The bill signed July 5 at the company’s Green Bay headquarters prohibits lawsuits against trucking companies for negligence or wrongdoing caused by a supplier.

Thomas Schneider, variously identified in Walker’s campaign finance reports as the company’s owner or a semi-retired consultant, was one of 10 donors identified in complaints filed Wednesday by the Democracy Campaign for exceeding the $10,000 limit on campaign contributions.

Walker’s campaign finance reports show Schneider gave Walker $10,550 in the last gubernatorial campaign period – from July 1, 2008 through December 31, 2010. The reports also show Schneider gave Walker contributions totaling $10,300 in calendar year 2010.

State campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to $10,000 to a candidate for governor in a campaign period, as well as $10,000 to all state and local candidates combined in a calendar year.

Walker said at the bill signing the new law fit into his effort to improve the state’s business climate.

Friday, July 01, 2011

It's That Really Old Document's Fault

From the debt ceiling talks in Washington to the reaction to the Wisconsin Supreme Court's Stranglegate scandal, the politicians' Rule Number One is on prominent display. When things get fouled up, never accept responsibility and always assign blame.

When one justice's hands somehow made their way to another's neck, our state's officialdom could have swiftly insisted on acceptance of responsibility. Instead we got hasty assignment of blame. Some are faulting Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson for not being more of a peacemaker. Now two state senators are blaming the state constitution, calling for it to be amended to end Supreme Court elections.

Political Rule Number One makes them roads rarely traveled, but the paths to responsibility are as numerous as the potential targets of blame. Let's review the options.

The judiciary could police itself. Judicial misconduct charges could be filed in response to the recent physical altercation in the high court's chambers. Discipline can range from reprimand to suspension and even removal from office.

Any perpetrators of physical violence could be held to account in the criminal justice system. Charges could be filed and any criminal acts could be prosecuted.

The Legislature could initiate impeachment proceedings.

Voters could, at the proper moment, exercise their right to pursue a recall election.

It is striking that Senators Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen did not advocate any of these measures. Instead they found fault with the state's founding document. And they blamed the voters.

It is even more striking that they issued their indictment of Supreme Court elections a matter of days after legislators voted to eviscerate the Impartial Justice Act that provided high court candidates with an alternative to grubbing for private special interest money in order to run competitively for the office. And they put an exploding candle on their carcinogenic cake when they increased the limit on private donations to Supreme Court hopefuls. Not by a little either. Tenfold. The old limit was $1,000. The new limit is $10,000.

There is no doubt that the flood of money in recent Supreme Court elections is at the heart of the court's current dysfunction. And there is no doubt that legislators and the governor just made matters much worse.

They are not done throwing monkey wrenches. Now that they have swung the floodgates open even more widely, they are advancing legislation to prevent the public from knowing how much money is flowing into elections and where that money is coming from.

They take such actions and then they have the gall to suggest that the real problem is the governing framework Wisconsin's founders designed. They scream at the top of their lungs, "the state Supreme Court is an effing mess! Amend the constitution!"

Wisconsin's Supreme Court used to be a national model, recognized as one of the finest courts in the nation. Has it occurred to no one in the Capitol or on the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board that all the while this reputation was being earned the court was elected?

Our state has elected Supreme Court justices for over 150 years. For a century and a half, those elections produced a court that was deserving of the public's trust and confidence. In very recent years, the court's reputation has been badly tarnished. Has it occurred to no one at the Capitol or the State Journal that maybe, just maybe, the problem isn't that we had Supreme Court elections for over a century and a half, it's that we started having Supreme Court auctions beginning in 2007?

The constitution is not the problem. Democracy is not the problem. Political Rule Number One is. So are all the backward policies and judicial edicts that have turned our elections into auctions. Any real solution has to address those real problems.