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Friday, January 28, 2011

Scott Walker, Plagiarist

A few weeks into Scott Walker's tenure as governor, one thing is becoming clear. He has no ideas. None of his own, anyway.

Walker is pushing to dilute legislative oversight and give himself new power to veto rules developed by state agencies (whose heads are mostly appointed by the governor). This tampering with time-honored checks and balances is not Walker's idea. He lifted it straight from the agenda Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce came out with last November.

He also plagiarized WMC's proposal for so-called "tort reform." No, we're not talking state intervention in the baking of those cakes made of eggs and sugar and not much else. A tort is an injury, damage or wrongful act done willfully and negligently and settled with monetary damages in civil court. Walker and the Legislature's Fitzgerald brothers did WMC's bidding in ramming through changes that make it harder for consumers to seek compensation for being injured or poisoned by harmful products and limit damages that can be awarded even if a consumer does manage to sue despite the new obstacles. The new law even protects nursing homes from lawsuits when they abuse or neglect their elderly patients.

Two new corporate tax breaks are in the works, another gift to WMC. Never mind that these favors add to a state budget deficit already expected to be $3 billion. And never mind that it's estimated that close to two-thirds of big businesses in Wisconsin already pay no taxes, as Wisconsin newspaper hall of famer Dave Zweifel recently reported.

Then there's the special session bill pushed by Walker and legislative leaders providing an exemption from statewide wetlands protections for one developer – a Green Bay area businessman who happens to be a major campaign contributor to Governor Walker. This one has such a rank stench that today it's being reported that even though the skids appear to be greased and the bill is sailing toward passage, some involved with the development project are having second thoughts.

Walker is copying from the Wisconsin Realtors Association's script on wind power. And, of course, on transportation issues he is taking his cues from the powerful road building industry. Wisconsin lost $810 million in federal funds for high-speed rail because Walker – the top recipient of road builder donations – did what was good for the road builders, namely insist that the rail money be used for highway projects instead. What was good for the road builders wasn't good for Wisconsin. We ended up with nothing. California, Illinois and a bunch of other states got our rail money.

Day after day more favors are done for the rich and powerful. Regular people have a choice. We can sit idly by and watch this disgraceful pandering to those who make the biggest campaign donations and have the most lobbyists prowling the halls of the Capitol on their behalf. Or we can go to the Capitol and stand against special interest ownership of our government.

The Democracy Campaign is organizing a citizen vigil at the Capitol because we'd rather stand and fight than sit on our backsides and twiddle our thumbs for the next two years. If they are going to do favors for the rich and powerful day after day, we're going to call them on it day in and day out.

That's why we're starting this vigil. And that's why we're calling on all 99ers to join us. Let me explain who I'm talking about. 99er is a term originally coined to describe jobless and financially vulnerable Americans. It refers to those who have exhausted all of their unemployment benefits, as 99 weeks is the maximum allowed under the law in any state. But we apply the term more broadly to the unrepresented and politically homeless. Here in Wisconsin, less than 1% of the population pays for all the election campaigning by state politicians. If the other 99% of us are to have a voice, it's up to us to demand it and fight for it.

Our success will depend on how many of us are willing to stand together in the interest of bringing back the idea that government should work for the greater good.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Show Us The Money

Let's start with a basic assumption. Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence elections.

By that measure, Wisconsin is failing. Our state's campaign finance disclosure system is a wreck.

Back in mid-November the state Government Accountability Board released figures showing special interest groups had reported spending close to $10 million on elections in 2010. We were pretty sure that was more than the tip of the iceberg, but also had strong reasons to believe there was much more spending that was below the radar.

After examining TV ad invoices, scouring IRS filings and turning over countless other stones, we were able to find about $9 million more that was spent. And there was almost certainly still more campaigning that escaped our notice.

So the bottom line is that Wisconsin's disclosure system accounted for barely half of the campaign spending by outside interest groups, if that. That is not disclosure that upholds the right of voters to know who is influencing elections.

When it comes to who actually supplied the interest groups with the $19 million they spent on election advertising, the state's disclosure laws failed us to an even greater extent. Less than a third of the money ($6 million of the $19 million) could be traced to identifiable donors. Most of it came from anonymous sources. That is not disclosure that protects the right of voters to know who is influencing elections.

Of those few groups that disclosed donations, some reported spending millions of dollars but only identified a small number of contributions they received to pay for their spending. For example, the Republican Governors Association's RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC reported spending $3.48 million but only reported $31,190 in contributions. Where did the rest of the money come from? The public is left to guess.

Other groups reported receiving much larger amounts in contributions. The only catch is they listed themselves as the donors. On the right, the Republican State Leadership Committee reported spending $935,726 and receiving $772,091 in contributions. Who was so generous? Why, the Republican State Leadership Committee. On the left, a group called Advancing Wisconsin reported spending $558,895 and receiving $270,500 in donations . . . from itself. Where did the money really come from? The public is kept in the dark. That is not disclosure that comes close to satisfying the voters' right to know who is influencing elections.

For years, I've heard one Republican politician after another say they don't believe in limits on what's given to campaigns or spent on elections but they do believe all the money should be immediately and publicly reported. Let the money flow, but disclose everything. That's been their mantra.

Now the Republicans are in charge at the State Capitol. They control both the Assembly and Senate as well as the governor's office. Will their word become law? Or will the identities of those who are buying elections and, by extension, taking ownership of our government remain a carefully guarded secret?

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