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.