Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Helping The 0.004%

Voters are divided on many issues. But there is at least one thing that unites voters of every political stripe. There is tripartisan agreement among voters – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – that the money in elections needs to be reined in.

Poll after poll by academic institutions, media organizations and private survey research firms shows that a supermajority of voters now believe there is way too much money in politics and unlimited election fundraising and spending is corrupting our government.

Two dozen Wisconsin communities have approved referendums or passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and other related court decisions and allow more vigorous anti-corruption measures to be put in place. Sixteen states and over 500 communities nationwide have done the same.

Assembly Bill 225 goes in exactly the opposite direction. The bill takes the position that there is not enough money in politics. As amended and passed by the state Assembly, AB 225 would double existing state limits on campaign contributions. A tiny group of donors equal to four one-thousandth of 1% of Wisconsin’s population are bumping up against the current limits. That is not to say these donors are all from Wisconsin. Many of them live outside our state. In 2012 a total of 243 wealthy donors – including 149 from out of state – reached Wisconsin’s $10,000 annual limit on campaign contributions.

In the Assembly, AB 225’s supporters argued that raising the contribution limits would cause donors to give directly to candidates rather than steering so much money to outside interest groups that sponsor their own election advertising, thus reducing the influence of the outside groups. We’ve had 15 tests of this theory in Wisconsin. In the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, the limits weren’t doubled, they were eliminated altogether for the officials targeted for recall. This did not result in less money going to outside groups. They raised and spent more than ever. Despite a single donor giving as much as $510,000 to a candidate, outside groups outspent candidates by a substantial margin. Outside groups accounted for $75.8 million of the overall recall election spending of $137.5 million.

AB 225 makes the most powerful even stronger. For those who already have the loudest voices and the greatest influence in Wisconsin politics, AB 225 increases their capacity to influence candidates for state office by 100%. It is a gift to the four one-thousandth of 1% whose style is cramped by Wisconsin’s limits. It is a kick in the gut for everyone else.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Name, Same Taint

The word "lobbyist" has become so tainted in the public eye that the American League of Lobbyists decided last month to change its name to the Association of Government Relations Professionals.

Sorry, but that won't help.

There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. After all, at its core is the exercise of the First Amendment right to petition our government. From my vantage point, what has tarnished lobbying is not the act of lobbying itself but rather the modern-day marriage of lobbying and campaign fundraising. Lobbyists are seen as key brokers in the system of legalized extortion and bribery that we now have. They are seen this way because the lobbyists representing the biggest, most influential interest groups are indeed key brokers in this crooked system.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Reported Doe Targets Did Most Recall Spending

Political committees and outside electioneering groups named in various media reports as possible targets of a second John Doe investigation into suspected political wrongdoing in Wisconsin accounted for more than half of all the campaign spending in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections and two-thirds of the spending in last year's election for governor.

The committees and groups spent $70.5 million, or 51% of the total $137.5 million in recall spending. They accounted for $54.4 million in spending in the 2012 recall election for governor, which is 67% of the overall spending of $81 million in that race.

A Wall Street Journal editorial identified Friends of Scott Walker, the Republican Party of Wisconsin, the Republican Governors Association, the League of American Voters, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin and American Crossroads as targets of the criminal probe. The newspaper also quoted Wisconsin Club for Growth officer Eric O'Keefe saying he is a target and was subpoenaed by investigators.

Walker's campaign spent $36.1 million to thwart the recall effort and the Republican Governors Association spent $9.4 million. The state Republican Party reported spending $1.2 million on the senate recall elections. Wisconsin Club for Growth also focused mostly on the senate recalls, with $9 million of its total spending of $9.1 million going to help targeted Republican senators. Wisconsin Family Action spent $850,000 to sway the senate elections. WMC spent $4.7 million on advertising, including $4 million on ads in the governor's race. Americans for Prosperity spent a total of $4.5 million on recall ads, with $3.7 million going to the effort to keep Walker in office and the rest helping GOP senators.

Two groups named by the Wall Street Journal – American Crossroads and the League of American Voters – did not do any detectable campaign spending in the Wisconsin recall elections. But American Crossroads and its affiliate Crossroads GPS in particular are known to funnel large sums of money to other dark money groups.

Other groups whose names have cropped up in media reports in association with John Doe 2 also played conspicuous roles in the recall elections. Citizens for a Strong America spent $1.7 million on the senate recalls. According to a Center for Media and Democracy review of tax filings, the group got almost all of its funds in 2011 from Wisconsin Club for Growth. In turn, Citizens for a Strong America supplied Wisconsin Family Action with virtually all of its reported grant revenue for 2011.

Club for Growth also gave $425,000 to the Jobs First Coalition, which was close to half of what the coalition raised in 2011. Jobs First Coalition spent $100,000 on the senate recalls. The group also transferred $245,000 to the American Federation for Children, which spent $2.8 million on all of the recall elections including $1.1 million on Walker's behalf.

Two more groups that figure into the equation are the national Center to Protect Patient Rights and a dark-money conduit known as the Wellspring Committee. Neither did any detectable spending in the recall elections, but Wisconsin Club for Growth received $225,000 from CPPR and $400,000 from Wellspring in 2011. CPPR and another group were ordered to pay $1 million in fines in October to settle allegations in California that they conspired to conceal the origins of political campaign money.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Working The Refs

Coaches in every sport have raised the tactic to something of an art form. Get in the ear of the referees or umpires and keep chirping about every call that goes against your team. Give them a good chewing out on the small stuff. Wave your arms, jump up and down, and howl in protest over the big calls that don't go your way. All in hopes of getting them to swallow their whistle later in the game or maybe even give you a make-up call, one that really shouldn't go your way but does.

Works like a charm.

That fact has never gone unnoticed in the political world. Operatives mimic the coaches' behavior, doing their best Bobby Knight impersonations, seeking to bully everyone from news reporters and political opponents to regulators and law enforcement officials into submission.

We're seeing this kind of conduct on more prominent display than ever in Wisconsin politics. Whenever journalists write or say something that doesn't please the political types, they scream "MEDIA BIAS!" When regulators or law enforcement authorities look into apparent wrongdoing or, even worse, take steps to rein in misbehavior, the political players go into hyperdrive to smear the actions as politically motivated and the actors as witch hunters.

Take the John Doe investigation looking into possible lawbreaking by an expansive web of shadowy front groups, some based in Wisconsin and some from out of state, that sought to influence the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. The Bobby Knights of Wisconsin politics are screaming bloody murder that it's nothing but a carefully scripted charade started oh-so-close to the approaching election year, timed to affect the outcome of the 2014 elections. Never mind that the probe evidently started in February 2012. The political Knights didn't start whining about it until just now, in hopes of duping enough people into believing that the investigators launched the whole thing yesterday.

The Knights are claiming the investigators are partisans and smearing their probe as a political hatchet job that is targeting only Republican groups. Never mind that the John Doe inquiry is being led by a career federal prosecutor who once was on George W. Bush's short list for an appointment as U.S. Attorney for Milwaukee. Or that the Doe probe is being overseen by a distinguished retired appeals court judge.

The Knights are trying to do to the John Doe investigation what they earlier did to efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to more rigorously enforce federal law governing tax-exempt nonprofit groups that are supposed to exclusively work to promote the social welfare, not just shill for politicians. Carefully following the script, they smeared the IRS effort as a partisan witch hunt targeting only tea party groups. Never mind that the agency also was singling out liberal groups for heightened scrutiny. The Knights never let facts or truth get in the way of good bullying opportunities. The result? The IRS is swallowing its whistle. It is neglecting to enforce either the letter or the spirit of federal tax law as it relates to nonprofit groups.

It is no coincidence either that the governor now is playing games with nominations to the state Government Accountability Board. Or that legislators are proposing to take retired judges off the elections and ethics board and replace them with political appointees. Or that the GAB is being audited.

They are working the refs. They are assuming it will work wonders. They are assuming the refs will swallow their whistles.

If they are successful, what we will be left with is a lawless environment. A political landscape where anything goes. Where political actors cannot be held accountable for crooked dealings, and where lawbreaking is not prosecuted.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Walker Donations Undergo Sex Change

Governor Scott Walker recently amended his campaign finance report for the first six months of 2013 to lower contributions made by some of his high-end donors in order to protect them from being found in violation of campaign finance law.

The governor’s actions followed a report by the Democracy Campaign in September that showed 14 contributors to statewide and legislative candidates had already exceeded the state’s annual $10,000 limit on campaign contributions in just the first half of the year. The Government Accountability Board, which enforces the state’s campaign finance, ethics, lobbying and election laws, told the Democracy Campaign that it will investigate the findings early next year.

Meanwhile, Walker’s latest campaign finance report has already reduced the original contributions to him by six of those individuals by treating the difference between the original and the reduced contributions as entirely new donations from the individual’s spouse. The gender reassignments now put total contributions by these six people under the $10,000 limit. Here’s how Walker did it:

Donald Kress, Green Bay, had contributed $11,000 to three candidates, including $5,000 to Walker. The governor’s latest report slashes Kress’s contribution in half and assigns the $2,500 difference as a new contribution from Kress’s wife, Carol.

Eugene Mallinger, Brookfield, had contributed $12,000 to two candidates, including $10,000 to the governor. Walker’s latest report cuts Mallinger’s contribution in half and assigns the $5,000 difference as a new contribution from Mallinger’s wife, Rebecca.

Albert Nicholas, Chenequa, had contributed $11,000 to two candidates, including $10,000 to Walker. The governor’s latest report reduces Nicholas’s contribution to $9,000 and assigns the $1,000 difference as a new contribution from Nicholas’s wife, Nancy.

Richard Pfister, Hayward, had contributed $10,100 to two candidates, including $10,000 to the governor. Walker’s latest report reduces Pfister’s contribution to $9,900 and assigns the $100 difference as a new contribution from Pfister’s wife, Terry.

Paul Schierl, Green Bay, had contributed $11,500 to six candidates, including $5,000 to Walker. The governor’s latest report reduces Schierl’s contribution to $3,500 and assigns the $1,500 difference as a new contribution from Schierl’s wife, Carol.

Richard Uihlein, Lake Forest, Illinois, had contributed $10,500 to two candidates, including $10,000 to the governor. Walker’s latest report slashes Uihlein’s contribution in half and assigns the $5,000 difference as a new contribution from Uihlein’s wife, Elizabeth.

As strange – and unfair – as this may sound to casual readers who don’t follow campaign finance, Walker and other legislative and statewide officeholders and candidates have done this numerous times over the years.

Unfortunately, it’s usually allowed because the former state Elections Board and now the GAB decided that many of these donations can be split or readjusted after the fact because the state’s marital property law.

Kind of like telling the cop who stops you for speeding that you want half the fine and the points assigned to your spouse’s driving record because you both own the car.

Yeah, I bet that would work.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Conflating Secret Bribery And Civil Rights

"Since when do we not care about minorities?"

So said a member of the state Assembly, Platteville-area Republican Travis Tranel.

And the oppressed minorities of whom he speaks?

Campaign contributors.

Tranel asked his rhetorical question at a public hearing this week with the aim of justifying – to himself at least – legislation that would blind the public to the financial interests of all who contribute to Assembly campaigns and nearly all who give to candidates for other offices.

Requiring disclosure of the occupation and employer of political donors is leading to members of the public "blackmailing people" who are giving to politicians by organizing boycotts of their businesses, Tranel says.

His statement echoed one made earlier in the hearing by the bill's author, assistant Senate majority leader Glenn Grothman, who claimed campaign finance transparency has prompted citizens to "terrorize" businesses.

The donor class is a tiny minority, that much is true. Barely 2% of the population supplies Wisconsin politicians with all of their campaign money. When legislators like Glenn Grothman and Travis Tranel think it makes sense to hide the financial interests of this elite corps of political givers from the public, they must be utterly oblivious to the main reason trust in government officials is lower than low. Most people see these campaign "donations" as legal bribes. Most no longer believe they are being represented because their own elected representatives are too busy catering to their biggest donors. And sadly, they have very good reason for that belief.

Concealing what election campaign funders do for a living and who employs them will only further erode public trust in the political system. That the likes of Grothman and Tranel do not seem to know this – or do not care – is pathetic.

Even more pathetic is the belief that the few who supply all of the political cash and enjoy disproportionate influence over elected officials somehow need protection from the general public. What is most striking about this twisted view is how un-American it is. Condemning nonviolent public protest of undue political influence by powerful business interests as terrorism or blackmail is downright offensive in a country whose independence is owed in no small measure to actions like the Boston Tea Party.

It is ironic in the extreme that today's "tea party" Republicans would seek to demolish campaign finance disclosure laws in hopes of stripping citizens of any ability to carry out economic boycotts. Have they wiped from their memory the fact that the ship the Sons of Liberty boarded in 1773 belonged to the British East India Company? And that the 45 tons of tea dumped into Boston Harbor was the property of that same company?

Funny how that event never went down in history as an act of blackmail or terrorism. Lucky for us, the mindset on display at Tuesday's hearing was not prevalent among the revolutionaries in 1773.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Legislators And Lobbyists First

Having witnessed yesterday's public hearing on the sand mining bill, I fail to see why lawmakers are allowed to get away with calling them public hearings. The last thing they do is hear the public.

Legislators talked first. And they talked and talked and talked, as if rehearsing for some future filibuster. Then it was the industry lobbyists' turn. And they droned on and on interminably, while citizens who had traveled for hours to attend the hearing were made to sit and wait.

I talked to people who woke up as early as 4 or 4:30 to drive into town to catch a bus and ride for three hours or more to arrive in time for the start of the hearing at 9:30. They had stories to tell. They wanted to share their concerns and fears about the effects of sand mining on their own health as well as its impact on the natural landscape and their property values. They wanted to have their say about traffic congestion and damage to their local roads. They are understandably unsettled by companies blasting with dynamite in their homeland. They are understandably outraged by a state power grab that strips them and their local communities of any ability to control their own fate and gives sand miners a green light to pretty much do as they please.

They waited for hours, forced to listen to the legislators and lobbyists. Some of them never heard their names called. It was never their turn to speak. They had to get back on the bus for the long ride home without testifying. They submitted written comments to the committee, something they could have done from home without getting up at 4 in the morning to make the trip to Madison.

The politicians and lobbyists who scratch backs and make deals in the Capitol most every day seemed utterly oblivious to how rudely and disrespectfully these citizens were being treated. By any measure of human decency, no one could be blamed for concluding that mining committee chairman Tom Tiffany was denied instruction in the basic social graces as a child. But this hearing was no different than any other held these days. Offensive as it was, this was standard operating procedure.

Watching such a disgraceful spectacle makes you angry enough to chew up nails and spit 'em out like bullets. One can only hope that all the people who traveled so far only to be treated so shabbily will find ways to exact proper revenge on these godforsaken politicians.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Casino Opponent Continues Big Contributions To Republican Electioneering Group

A Wisconsin Indian tribe that opposes another tribe’s $800 million Kenosha casino project contributed another $35,000 last month to an outside electioneering group that has spent more than $2 million since 2010 to help elect Republican legislators.

A fundraising and spending report filed by the Republican State Leadership Committee with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service shows the group received two contributions of $10,000 and $25,000 on September 27 from the Forest County Potawatomi Community.

The Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk Nation have steadfastly opposed the Menominee Indian Tribe’s proposed casino. Republican Governor Scott Walker, who has the final say on the project, has set today as the final deadline for the Menominee to meet three conditions before he will OK it. Among the conditions was that the Menominee persuade Wisconsin’s 10 other Indian tribes approve it, but the Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk continue to oppose it.

The latest Potawatomi contributions are in addition to $42,500 in contributions from the Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk in the past two years to the Republican State Leadership Committee. The two tribes have also contributed $150,900 to another GOP outside electioneering group – the Republican Governors Association – in the past two years. The governor’s association spent more than $14 million to help Walker win the 2010 general and the 2012 recall elections.

So, the only two tribes that oppose the casino proposal and have asked Walker to reject it have contributed a total of $228,400 in about two years to secretive outside groups that have collectively spent nearly $17 million to help elect the governor and the GOP legislative majority.

Given the timing, the Potawatomi’s latest contributions could be used by the group to help support Republican candidates in three special elections in November and December for vacant Assembly seats that were held by Republicans.

Friday, October 18, 2013

What The Frac?

Republican legislators are drumming up support for a proposal that would strip the authority of local governments to site, regulate and even monitor controversial frac sand mines and the public health, safety, property damage and other concerns that come with them.

This proposal comes on the heels of an explosion in the number of frac sand mines created in parts of northern and central Wisconsin over the past three years, and a corresponding dramatic spike in campaign contributions to legislative and statewide candidates from the industries that process and use the sand.

Powerful special interests that benefit from the plan – the sand mining and natural gas industries – contributed nearly $758,000 to legislative and statewide candidates from 2007 through 2012, according to a recent Democracy Campaign report.

Those contributions grew sharply each year, particular after 2010 when the number of sand mines and processing and transport operations grew from about a half dozen to more than 100 this summer throughout central and northern Wisconsin.

And the money continues to flow in. The two industries that directly benefit from loose mining rules and enforcement of environmental regulations doled out an additional $101,164 in the first six months of 2013 when the latest deregulation proposal was in the works.

In addition to these two industries, the powerful Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, is praising the proposed plan. WMC represents more than a dozen powerful special interests that contribute millions of dollars to legislative and statewide candidates. The group has also secretly raised and spent an estimated $18.4 million in Wisconsin elections since 2006 mostly on negative broadcast advertising that usually supports Republican candidates.

Opponents of sand mines and their processing and transport operations say airborne silicia sand used to drill for natural gas in other states causes respiratory and other health problems, threatens the quality and quantity of groundwater and accelerates road damage at increased costs to local taxpayers. Supporters say the industry provides much needed jobs and an overall boost to local economies.

The latest deregulation plan would prohibit local governments from using their police powers as allowed under a 2012 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to determine where frac sand mines are located. Local governments could use zoning and reclamation ordinances to site the mines, but would prevent counties, cities, villages and towns from closing down existing sand mines or letting them expand on adjacent land.

The Department of Natural Resources would be in charge of imposing air and water quality standards for frac sand mines, but couldn’t impose standards stricter than state law. Local governments would also be prohibited from creating or enforcing their own air and water quality standards and restrictions; requiring air and water quality monitoring; and regulating the amount of water used in mining operations.

The bill also reduces a county’s authority to require mine operators to repair damaged land; prevents local governments from regulating explosives used in mining or quarrying; and dictates the methods counties and municipalities can use to get mining operations to reimburse them for road damages.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

School Voucher Group Hijacking Special Elections

A Washington D.C. special interest group that wants school voucher programs expanded in Wisconsin has already vastly outspent all of the dozen candidates combined before next week’s primaries in two Assembly special elections.

The American Federation for Children, which generally backs Republican legislative and statewide candidates that support spending millions in state tax dollars to send children to private and religious schools, doled out $90,741 as of October 15 on mailings, on-line advertising and robocalls in the Assembly 21st District contest in suburban Milwaukee and central Wisconsin’s 69th Assembly District.

Meanwhile, the candidates reported spending a combined $49,186, according to campaign finance reports also filed earlier this week. Six candidates are running in each race, including five Republicans in the 21st District and four Republicans in the 69th District who will face off in October 22 primaries.

In the 21st District race, the $45,646 spent by American Federation for Children was nearly five times more than the $9,520 doled out by the six candidates. The group is putting its money on Republican Jessie Rodriguez. It’s spending about 198 times more than Rodriguez who reported spending $231 as of October 7 – the least of all the candidates.

In the 69th District contest, the $45,095 spent by the group topped the $39,666 spent by the six candidates. The group has sent numerous mailings – some here and here – in support of Republican Alanna Feddick. American Federation’s spending more than tripled the $13,792 Feddick reported spending as of October 7.

American Federation’s electioneering activities in these races is similar to some of the strategy in other legislative and statewide races where they’ve spent an estimated $4.4 million since 2010 – inundate areas with daily mailings and talk about every other issue – job creation, health care, taxes, etc. – except school vouchers.

The special elections for these Assembly seats are being held because Republican Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder of Abbottsford in the 69th and Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee in the 21st resigned to take other jobs.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ruling On Borrowed Time

On the surface, the 1% appear to be riding high, economically and politically speaking. Riding roughshod might be a more apt description. They have been positively cleaning up in very recent times.

Closer inspection shows signs of desperation in high places, however. Say what you will about them, but the 1% can read the handwriting on the wall.

They can see the changing face of America and its implications for political power. And they can see this change will only accelerate in the foreseeable future.

They can see generational change coming, too. Many if not most Americans seem disinclined to turn on them, but not so with the so-called Millennials. The teens and twenty-somethings are downright disenchanted with corporate America. While older generations remain largely sold on capitalism, Pew Research shows the Millennials actually prefer socialism. Grim job prospects and a downsized American Dream buried under a mountain of student debt will do that.

Democracy, with its core emphasis on majority rule, is fundamentally numerical. With fast-changing demographics and generational angst working against them, the 1% are confronted with a political landscape where it will be increasingly difficult for them to numerically hold on to their privileged status as America's ruling class.

Desperate times yield extreme measures. A future marked with growing inability to win numerically explains why the 1% devote so much energy to rigging the political game procedurally and financially.

America's changing face and shifting political terrain explain the recent surge in voter suppression efforts. Which, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining mass incarceration.

That handwriting on the wall the 1% are reading explains why we're seeing the most brazen manipulation of political boundaries through partisan gerrymandering in living memory.

It explains why they needed an obliging Supreme Court to rule as it did in the Citizens United case. And it explains why Citizens United is not enough. They now need the court to go even farther on their behalf, and there's good reason to believe they will be obliged once again.

Emerging demographic and generational realities are creating political conditions under which maintenance of the 1%'s iron grip on power is incompatible with democracy. That's why democracy is under such vicious assault.

They are going down with a fight.

Monday, October 14, 2013

'Not The Rich, More Than The Poor'

At this moment when it has dawned on many if not most Americans that we have a bought Congress, it's worth reflecting on the fact that in the Federalist Papers, one of the founding fathers (widely thought to be James Madison in this instance) writing under the pseudonym "Publius" said that Congress "ought to be dependent on the People alone” and "Not the rich, more than the poor."

There can be no doubt anymore that Congress has competing – and conflicting – dependencies that lead its members time and time again to put the wishes of the rich ahead of the needs of everyone else. That the same is true in our state Legislature also is self evident.

How very far we've strayed from the founders' vision.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Favoring The Money Over The Many

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court took up a case that could end up exploding on the terrain of American democracy with a force every bit as devastating as the bomb the court dropped with its infamous 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. The Democracy Campaign and 34 other citizen groups gathered on the steps of the State Capitol to sound alarms about McCutcheon v. FEC and what it could do to our political system. We weren't alone. Coalitions like ours did the same all across the country.

Citizens United cleared the way for unlimited election spending by special interest groups. That decision hit like a ton of bricks. Here in Wisconsin, election spending tripled after the ruling.

McCutcheon could do for mega-donors to candidates and parties what Citizens United did for interest groups sponsoring their own election advertising.

Wealthy businessman Shaun McCutcheon (pictured with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at an Alabama fundraiser) wants a key federal limit on political contributions to go away.

McCutcheon's case zeroes in on a single number: $123,200. That's the federal aggregate limit on what an individual can give to candidates, parties and political action committees in a given election cycle. A grand total of 1,219 people four out of every million Americans reached that limit in the 2012 elections. But one out of every six American billionaires maxed out. For them, the federal limit is cramping their style.

If the Supreme Court sides with Shaun McCutcheon, political power will be even more concentrated in the hands of a very wealthy few.

How few? If the court grants McCutcheon his wish, 0.000003% of Americans will have even more ability to influence our elections and will have even more political power than they already possess.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Making Voters Blind And Making Crime Pay

Chapter 11 of Wisconsin’s state laws begins with a declaration of policy. It says the "legislature finds and declares that our democratic system of government can be maintained only if the electorate is informed." It goes on to say that one of the "most important sources of information to the voters is available through the campaign finance reporting system."

The legislature's declaration continues: "When the true source of support or extent of support is not fully disclosed . . . the democratic process is subjected to a potential corrupting influence." And it concludes that "the state has a compelling interest in designing a system for fully disclosing contributions."

Legislation introduced by the Senate's assistant majority leader does violence to the public purpose so eloquently articulated by the predecessors to today's legislators by radically limiting campaign finance transparency.

This bill would do two things, both of which are dangerous and destructive to the public interest. First, this legislation would blind the public to the financial interests of most campaign donors. Current law requires the disclosure of both the occupation and employer of any donor giving more than $100. Senate Bill 282 requires disclosure of only the occupation of donors giving over $500.

Since 1996, the Democracy Campaign has enabled the public to follow the money in Wisconsin politics by managing a searchable online donor database. There are 862,064 contributions from individuals in our database. Of those donations, 825,827 or 96% are $500 or less. Contributions of more than $500 total 36,237. If SB 282 had been state law when we launched this money tracking system back in 1996, the database would be 96% smaller and would show the occupation but not the employer of each of the donors who made those 36,237 contributions.

The second thing SB 282 would do is hinder law enforcement and make criminal activity easier. In recent years Wisconsin has seen two wealthy campaign contributors – one a major Democratic donor and the other a major Republican supporter – convicted of money laundering. In both instances, the Democracy Campaign was contacted by law enforcement officials who asked for our assistance in identifying employees of their companies who made campaign donations. If SB 282 is enacted, such investigations would be next to impossible.

SB 282 should be dumped and lawmakers instead should go in exactly the opposite direction, strengthening rather than weakening disclosure laws by approving the bipartisan Senate Bill 166 authored by Republican Mike Ellis and Democrat Jon Erpenbach.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Influence To The Ninth Power

In a recent letter to the editor of Wisconsin's second largest newspaper, Representative Steve Nass claimed those wanting performance report cards for private schools receiving public funds under Wisconsin's school voucher program are under the spell of the money and power of the "education bureaucracy."

When the state started handing out vouchers in Milwaukee 23 years ago, supporters promised it would boost the achievement of poor students. It hasn't. Test scores show students getting vouchers to attend private schools are doing no better than public school students and, by some measures, are actually doing worse.

Voucher backers also promised the program would breed innovation and system change by creating competition in the education system. That hasn’t happened either. The latest statewide school report cards show Milwaukee schools are alone in failing to meet expectations.

When a government program doesn't work, it should end. Yet after failing to deliver on its promises for 23 years, lawmakers did not debate whether or not to stop this failed experiment. They expanded it statewide.

Why does the voucher program still have so much wind in its sails despite its inability to produce results?

There are at least 97 million reasons. Over the last 10 years, pro-voucher interests have poured $97 million into Wisconsin elections. Anti-voucher forces spent $10.5 million in the same period of time trying to influence those state elections.

Steve Nass says opposition to vouchers is driven by money and power. Support for vouchers is driven by that same kind of money and power – times nine.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

48 For 48

Quirky factoid: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has raised $48 million to get a 48% approval rating.

Walker raised $11 million in campaign funds to win the governor's office in 2010. And he raised an additional $37 million to survive the 2012 recall.

Of course, interest groups backing him spent many millions more on his behalf, including nearly $23 million in 2012 alone.

The governor's approval rating is holding steady. Polling done in early summer mirrored the latest opinion survey, with public approval of his performance at 48%.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Full-Time Fundraising

Fundraising by legislative and statewide candidates has become a nonstop chore with no break even in non-election years.

Large contributions funneled through check-bundling operations known as conduits prove this point.

A recent Democracy Campaign report showed conduit contributions to sitting legislators jumped 317 percent from about $900,000 in the 1993-94 election cycle to a record $3.7 million in the 2011-12 election cycle.

But the surge in large individual conduit contributions in odd-numbered years was especially striking, increasing 728 percent from a low of nearly $307,000 in 1995 to $2.54 million in 2011 (see Bar Chart).

Large Individual Conduit Contributions in Non-Election Years to Legislative and Statewide Candidates

The record-breaking fundraising in the 2011 recall races was responsible for some of the large conduit contributions generated in 2011, but steady, substantial increases in off-year fundraising occurred before then. Statewide and legislative candidates raised about $1.2 million in large individual conduit contributions in 2005, 2007 and 2009 – nearly 300 percent more than in 1995.

Even governors who historically rely less on conduit contributions than candidates for other offices are raising dramatically more conduit cash when they’re not up for reelection.

In the 1990s, Republican Governor Tommy Thompson collected about $300,000 in large individual conduit cash in the 1993-94 and in 1997-98 when he was up for reelection, but only about $54,000 in 1995-96 and $23,100 in 1999-2000 when he did not face reelection.

A decade later Democratic Governor Jim Doyle’s campaign pulled down large conduit contributions totaling about $450,000 in 2003-04 and 2007-08 when he didn’t face reelection.

In the 2006 cycle when Doyle faced reelection his campaign collected a record $629,665 in large individual conduit contributions. Doyle’s record was recently topped by Walker’s $663,234 in large conduit contributions in 2011-12.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Walker's Casino Approval Strategy Likely To Benefit Large GOP Donors

Governor Scott Walker’s plan to require unanimous approval of the Menominee Indian Tribe’s proposed Kenosha casino by all of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes likely means the project is doomed – an outcome that benefits a couple of huge GOP campaign supporters.

Two of the tribes – the Forest County Potawatomi Community and the Ho-Chunk Nation – who oppose the project have contributed a total of $193,400 in the last two years to two GOP outside electioneering groups that have spent an estimated $16.7 million to help Walker and numerous Republican state senators and legislative candidates win elections in recent years.

The Forest County Potawatomi which operates a lucrative casino in Milwaukee and has opposed the Menominee project for years has contributed $150,900 to the Republican Governors Association since July 2011, including $50,000 on February 25, 2013, a Democracy Campaign review of U.S. Internal Revenue Service records found.

Not only is the Potowatomi a big supporter of a major GOP group, but the association has spent more than any other outside electioneering group to support Walker. It doled out an estimated $5 million to elect Walker in 2010 and another $9.4 million in the 2012 recall election to keep Walker in office.

Another outside electioneering group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helped numerous Republican legislative candidates received $42,500 from the Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk Nation which wants to build a casino in Beloit and is also opposes the Menominee’s Kenosha project.

The Republican State Leadership Committee spent an estimated $2.3 million mostly on Senate races in the 2010 general and 2011 and 2012 recalls. Most notably the group spent about $472,000 in the 2010 general elections to help take out former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker and turn control of the Senate over to the GOP.

The likelihood that all of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes would approve the project was probably a tough hurdle from the get-go, but now seems almost impossible given the Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk are among those tribes.

That the Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk are major GOP campaign contributors puts Walker’s criteria for approving the deal in a different light. The governor says he didn’t want to play King Solomon and use his unilateral authority under federal law to “pick or choose between two well-respected entities” referring to the Menominee and Potawatomi tribes.

But the governor has created a casino approval process that is a likely no-win scenario for the Menominee, benefits wealthy supporters and makes it look like Walker tried to be exceedingly fair.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What Part Of 'Exclusive' Does IRS Fail To Grasp?

At the heart of the crooked dark money game and the hijacking of elections by phony front groups is the abuse of the federal tax code.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's preposterous decision three years ago in the Citizens United case, corporations are considered people and have been freed to spend as much as they want to influence American elections. This ruling has led to a proliferation of nonprofit corporations devoted to meddling in elections. Most of these outfits are organized under section 501c4 of the Internal Revenue Code.

But it's not just the Citizens United decision that has unleashed the 501c4s politically speaking. The IRS deserves a substantial share of the blame.

Federal law says 501c4 groups have to "exclusively" work to promote social welfare. When the IRS wrote rules to implement the statute, the agency ignored the plain meaning of the law. IRS rules say 501c4 groups have to "primarily" focus on social welfare work, while the law Congress passed says "exclusively."

Exactly how federal bureaucrats could see the word "exclusively" and interpret it to mean "primarily" is a mystery. But this word play has devastating consequences for democracy. The IRS rules are allowing nonprofit organizations that have been granted tax-exempt status for the purposes of doing social welfare work to devote close to half of their resources to warping election outcomes. And because social welfare nonprofits do not have to publicly disclose those who donate to their cause, who's behind this election activity can be cloaked in secrecy.

There is a simple solution to the explosion of dark money-fueled electioneering by 501c4s. Reclassify all 501c4 groups as 527 organizations. Groups organized under section 527 of the federal tax code can do as much politicking as they want, but they have to disclose their donors, while 501c4 social welfare nonprofits can keep their funding sources secret.

The IRS is about to be sued over its misinterpretation and misapplication of federal law. Here's hoping this lawsuit succeeds in forcing the IRS to bring its rules and its enforcement in line with that law.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Choosing Who Chooses

Senator Mary Lazich insists there is no need for redistricting reform. This is noteworthy because she chairs the committee that is sitting on legislation to overhaul the redistricting process in Wisconsin that closely mirrors the system in place in Iowa.

Lazich dismisses Iowa's nonpartisan approach to redistricting as "nonsense" and cites one study that speculates “taking redistricting out of the hands of a unified legislature and giving it to a bipartisan or judicial commission could result in less competitive elections.”

She overlooks the fact that of Iowa's four U.S. House districts, two rank among the 20 most competitive of the country's 435 congressional districts. None of Wisconsin's eight House districts ranked among the 50 most competitive. In 2012, none of Wisconsin's congressional elections were competitive. All were won by double-digit margins.

The senator also overlooks the fact that in Wisconsin's 2012 elections one party collectively won the most votes for U.S. House, state Senate and state Assembly, but the other party won the most seats in all three legislative bodies.

The way redistricting is handled currently in Wisconsin badly weakens voters, thwarts the public's will, and virtually cements in place those already holding office. It's good for the politicians and bad for the voting public.

It's no surprise Senator Lazich is fond of the way it works now. But if your idea of democracy involves having citizens in the driver's seat, partisan redistricting done by elected officials is pure poison.

A simple choice has to be made. We either can have voters choosing representatives, or representatives choosing voters. If you are OK with the latter, then Senator Lazich is showing the way. If you prefer the former, then we need the reform embodied in Senate Bill 163 and Assembly Bill 185 in the worst way.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Nothing In Common Anymore

There is a conspicuous and growing disconnect between the public and the elected officials who are supposed to be representing the citizenry. Nowhere are the representatives and the represented more disconnected than on the subject of money in politics.

Poll after poll shows a tripartisan consensus among members of the general public that money is playing far too great a role in our elections, is having a poisonous effect on governing, and needs to be reined in.

According to the latest Gallup Poll half of Americans now have reached the point of favoring banning campaign contributions altogether. Voters of every political stripe oppose the U.S. Supreme Court's ludicrous Citizens United decision allowing unlimited election spending by special interest groups and want the ruling overturned.

Even those who are best positioned to buy elections – namely America's top business leaders – are evidently getting tired of the political money game and have grown uncomfortable with elected officials being bought. Three-quarters of them regard political giving as "pay to play" and close to 90% believe the campaign finance system needs to be overhauled.

The political establishment, on the other hand, has a radically different view. The problem is not that there is too much money in politics, but rather not enough. Witness the bipartisan voice vote in Wisconsin's state Assembly in June to pass an amended elections bill doubling the limits on campaign contributions.

Not only do political insiders believe campaign donations should be even bigger, they also believe the money should be hard to see. Witness the lack of action – no votes, no committee consideration, not even a public hearing – in either house of Wisconsin's legislature on bipartisan legislation like Senate Bill 166 that improves disclosure by closing the notorious "magic words" loophole and thereby shining light on the dark money in elections.

Instead we have the assistant Senate majority leader introducing legislation that would gut Wisconsin’s campaign finance disclosure laws. Currently, the occupation and employer of any donor who gives more than $100 must be reported. Under this new legislation, disclosure of only the occupation of any donor giving more than $500 would be required.

There are 862,064 contributions from individuals in the Democracy Campaign’s searchable online database. Of those donations, 825,827 or 96% are $500 or less. Contributions of more than $500 total 36,237. If Grothman’s new proposal had been state law all along, our database would be 96% smaller and would show the occupation but not the employer of each of the donors who made those 36,237 contributions.

Put another way, if this bill had been law when we built our database, citizens would not have been able to see what that database enables them to see today, namely the economic interests of donors who gave more than $122.5 million to Wisconsin politicians since the mid-1990s.

It is neither healthy nor sustainable for voters to be thinking one way and their "representatives" thinking and acting another way. Some course corrections are sorely needed.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

A Plan Fit To Be Damned

Today the Wisconsin State Journal endorsed a one-term limit for state Supreme Court despite having this to say about the proposal floated recently by the state bar association: "Voters would lose influence.... They would no longer be able to vote out justices for making unpopular decisions.... Candidates for state Supreme Court would still have to shill for votes and campaign donations to get through an initial election. Moreover, special interest groups might increase their spending on high court campaigns, knowing they'll have fewer opportunities to affect the makeup of the court."

Talk about damning an idea with faint praise. Hell, that isn't even praise. And it ain't faint.

Never mind that 16 years has to be the longest term ever imagined for an elective office. And never mind the term limit would get rid of truly exceptional justices as well as really bad ones.

Wisconsin has been electing Supreme Court justices for well over 150 years. Those elections served our state well for a century and a half. Our high court was known as one of the nation's finest. It wasn't until Supreme Court elections became auctions starting in 2007 that the court ran into trouble and public confidence in the performance and behavior of justices plummeted.

A single 16-year term does not address any of the root causes of the citizenry's loss of faith in Wisconsin's Supreme Court. It does nothing about money in elections, special interest influence, partisanship and ideological polarization on the court, or the conflicts of interest when justices rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters.

Before the bar association's proposal could be implemented, the state constitution would first have to be amended. That requires approval by two successive legislatures and then ratification by voters in a statewide election. That's an awful lot of time and trouble for a reform plan that steers clear of the core problems plaguing the court.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Budget For Two Wisconsins

Scott Walker and his legislative allies must really love Wisconsin. Because they seem determined to create two of them.

The state budget proposed by the governor, amended some and passed by both houses of the Legislature, and now returned to Walker's desk for his signature is a budget for two Wisconsins.

It takes Wisconsin farther down the path to the establishment of two separate school systems – one that can easily be segregated by race, class and academic ability or disability, and another that is well on its way to becoming little more than a dumping ground for the kids the private schools don't want or can't serve. As the state's private school voucher system is expanded statewide, it's hard not to notice that pro-voucher interests have pumped $97 million into Wisconsin elections in the last decade while those opposed to school privatization have contributed about $10.5 million.

Despite alarming levels of income inequality, the budget doubles down on trickle-down economics with a tax plan that showers a windfall on the wealthiest and throws table scraps to everyone else. As parallel tax systems emerge for the politically well connected and the peasantry, it's hard not to reflect on the fact that all of the money spent on Wisconsin elections comes from a donor class barely equal to 2% of the state's voting age population.

This budget is packed with more non-budget policy items than any state budget in recent memory. All of this junk is worth billions to an array of special interests that have contributed close to $33 million to the governor and legislators who shaped the budget. And of course all of this junk comes at the expense of the rest of the state's taxpayers who do not benefit much if at all from these political favors.

There is a new tax deduction for private school tuition. Looser rules for cutting off cable TV service and collecting payday loan debts. A nice tax break for the purveyors of junk mail. (Great! That's just what we need.... More junk mail.) Another item tucked in the budget further limits the ability of people harmed by defective products to sue manufacturers.

The budget greases the skids for selling public property without competitive bidding, opening the door to sweetheart sales of office buildings, prisons, power plants, university dormitories and even highways.

Perhaps the budget provision that most powerfully illustrates who lawmakers are catering to is the refusal of federal funds for Medicaid expansion. The decision means roughly 85,000 people will be denied access to medical insurance but state taxpayers will actually pay more than we would if the federal money were accepted and the additional people added to the program.

Lawmakers essentially told 85,000 low-income people "tough luck." But when the hospital industry squawked about how turning down the federal money could shift costs to the hospitals and hurt their bottom line, legislators snapped to attention and promptly took $73.5 million more from state taxpayers and planted it in the budget to compensate the hospitals for any adverse financial impacts they might experience.

This is a budget only big campaign donors could love. And what's not to love? It is a budget designed to give them their own separate Wisconsin.

To keep as many people as possible from noticing, the budget-writers included an amendment that evicts the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus and forbids UW faculty and staff from working with the center. This is not only an attack on press freedom and the award-winning watchdog reporting WCIJ is doing, but it also is an affront to academic freedom and a crippling blow to an invaluable collaborative effort to train the next generation of news reporters.

Can't have journalism students mingling with actual journalists. Just like we can't have the royals mingling with the rabble.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

While Wisconsin Slept

In the middle of the night a key committee of Wisconsin's Legislature did something petty, vindictive and un-American.

No, I am not talking about the budget committee's decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage, meaning Wisconsin taxpayers will pay $119 million more to provide 85,000 fewer people health insurance. To those 85,000 the committee essentially said "tough luck." But when the lobbyists for the hospitals squawked about how rejecting the federal health insurance expansion would end up harming their bottom line, the budget writers promptly added $73.5 million to the spending plan to compensate them.

That was done during waking hours.

When most everyone in our fair state was sleeping, the committee added language to the state budget that simultaneously assaults both press freedom and academic freedom.

The amendment prohibits the UW Board of Regents from permitting the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any university facilities, and prohibits UW employees from working with the Center.

The Center is doing award-winning watchdog journalism and has broken numerous important stories, including the physical altercation between two members of the state Supreme Court. At a time when the Capitol press corps is shrinking and the journalists are vastly outnumbered by the swarm of lobbyists prowling the halls on behalf of special interest clients, Wisconsin needs innovative nonprofit news organizations like the Center for Investigative Journalism now more than ever.

The Center is being attacked because it is doing a good job of serving the public's need to know what is going on in our government. The Center is being attacked because there are people in high places at the Capitol who don't want media scrutiny of their actions.

In addition to the Center's reporting, it has forged a terrific partnership with the UW's School of Journalism to help train the next generation of journalists. The Center provides paid internships to J-School students and gives them practical experience and mentoring. Some of those students are among the Center's award winners. Telling the UW it can have nothing to do with the Center is not only another creepy attack on the university and the academic freedom of its employees, it is a huge disservice to the students.

This past week has been a bleak one for democracy in Wisconsin. First, legislation was put on a fast track to make it harder to vote and easier for special interests to influence elections and easier for the governor to stack the agency charged with overseeing elections and ethics. Now this attack on press freedom and the training of future journalists.

Is anyone awake out there? Does anyone understand what's being done here?

Monday, June 03, 2013

Junk Bond

Luther Olsen has always struck me as a good guy. I have known the Ripon-area senator for about 20 years. I dealt with him extensively on school issues when he was in the state Assembly and chaired the education committee. I always found him to be a straight shooter.

That's why I believe him when he says he reached an agreement with other state leaders on public school funding and expansion of the state's private school voucher program. He says he shook on it with the governor and said pointedly, "Where I come from, your word is your bond."

Indeed it is. In Luther Olsen's world.

The problem is, the school privatization advocates and their water carriers with whom Senator Olsen has to negotiate do not seem to operate in that same world. Their track record in Wisconsin pegs them as the Ivan Boeskys and Michael Milkens of the education business.

When private school vouchers were first pitched in Wisconsin 23 years ago, those doing the pitching assured anyone who would listen that their "reforms" were tailored for Milwaukee. They insisted that the rest of the state didn't need such an intervention and couldn't benefit from vouchers. They also stressed that vouchers would go only to low-income families to give them the kind of educational options that middle-class and upper-income people already had.

That was the deal. Only for Milwaukee and only for the poor. A great many wary politicians took their word for it. The deal was done.

And then it was undone. Those peddling vouchers changed their tune and argued that communities like Beloit and Green Bay and Racine also needed vouchers. They succeeded in getting the program expanded to Racine. They whined about how it was unfair to deny such a valuable state benefit to people of modest means. In no time they talked lawmakers into boosting the eligibility threshold to incomes up to three times the federal poverty level. Vouchers were not only for Milwaukee and not only for the poor anymore.

Today that revised deal is in the process of being undone. Now they want to expand the voucher program statewide, but with limits on enrollment and tighter income eligibility levels. Senator Olsen says he shook on that. The state budget bill that is to include this agreement hasn't even been passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor yet, and already it looks about as durable as the original only-for-Milwaukee/only-for-the-poor deal.

Governor Scott Walker already has gone on the record saying "every two years we're going to come back and talk about further expansion."

What's more, the national group that authors of all this education "reform" legislation isn't exactly coy about its ultimate aim, namely privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives and, by so doing, weakening or entirely eliminating local school districts and school boards.

If that becomes the final deal, Wisconsin will find itself with a system where unaccountable privately run schools can easily segregate students by academic ability and disability, economics, ethnicity, language and culture. And a whole lot of people will wonder how we got there, and will demand to know who agreed to go along for the ride.

Friday, May 31, 2013

All Vessel, No Cargo

I couldn't help but notice how former Governor Jim Doyle made Mike Tate's case for another term as the state Democratic Party's chairman.

Doyle said Tate "has really understood what modern politics is. He has understood the media side, the consultant and polling side of it, the money-raising side of it and the really focused data politics."

Is that really all there is to modern politics?

Doyle went on to say that Tate "has really been able to bring all that together, and he has become a very good leader of people."

Does bringing all that together really amount to leadership?

If political leadership has come to mean nothing more than doing what the consultants and pollsters tell you to do, raising money nonstop, assembling sophisticated digital voter files and spinning the media, then it is all vessel and no cargo.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How To Govern Without Public Support

A representative democracy is built on a simple premise: Those who govern need the consent of the governed. Win the most votes, get power. Earn public approval of your actions, stay in power.

That's the way it's supposed to work.

But no politician wants to give up power, so every politician's worst fear is losing an election. That explains the lengths to which politicians will sometimes go to make sure they win elections even when their policies fall out of public favor. In Wisconsin we are witnessing a step-by-step march to nullify the consent of the governed as a condition for governing.

Step One: Manipulate the political boundaries.

Once every decade, congressional and legislative district boundaries are redrawn to take into account population growth and shifts in where people are living. If one party fully controls the government when this task is to be done, there is a seemingly irresistible urge for that party to pack large numbers of its opponent's voters into a few districts and scatter the rest across the many remaining political jurisdictions. That creates an opportunity to win the most seats and hold onto power even when you are unable to win the most votes. That mission was accomplished after the 2010 census by the party in power in Wisconsin through partisan gerrymandering, and produced the desired effect.

Step Two: Suppress the vote.

If some group of citizens is more likely to vote for your opponent, election rules can be manipulated to either put up formidable hurdles that these voters must clear in order to cast a ballot or disenfranchise them altogether. Just such a law was enacted in Wisconsin in 2011, in the name of fighting voter fraud. Thing is, of the few cases of voter fraud Wisconsin has seen, not a single case has involved the one form of fraud this law could possibly prevent. That's the telltale sign that the law really aims to permit governing without the consent of the governed, not combat election fraud.

Before it could work its magic, this law ran into a hurdle of its own, namely the language in Wisconsin's Constitution spelling out the right to vote. New legislation has been drafted in hopes of working around this pesky constitutional obstacle and re-erecting the barrier to voting, while restricting early voting to boot.

Step Three: Rig the money game.

In addition to making it harder for some to vote, the legislation also opens the door to more campaign contributions from lobbyists. The bill, which might as well be called the "Govern Without Public Support Act," also removes language from state law that was put there in 1905 banning corporate election spending. That law was rendered unenforceable for the time being by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. But no ruling this unpopular with the people will stand the test of time.

With the party currently in power in Wisconsin overwhelmingly advantaged by corporate election spending, that party's desire to cement the legalization of this kind of electioneering is understandable. Just as it was understandable that the party in power rammed through a law in 2011 that caused the opposition party's biggest financial supporter, the state teachers union, to scale back its campaign contributions from $2.3 million for the 2010 elections to just over $946,000 for the 2012 elections.

When Citizens United finally succumbs to public opinion and is overturned, the party in power doesn't want a law on the books prohibiting corporate election spending that can once again be enforced. Again, that would breathe new life into all that consent of the governed business.

Step Four: Conceal the money power.

When politicians are trying to rig the rules to enable them to win elections even when they are losing public support, the last thing they want is for people to be able to readily see how they are doing it. That's why the Govern Without Public Support Act also assaults disclosure of campaign finances. It writes the "magic words" loophole into state law and nullifies disclosure rules approved in 2010 by the state Government Accountability Board. Meaning that interest groups would have state law's blessing to keep the public in the dark about who's paying for campaign advertising aimed at influencing state elections. Avoid using words like "vote for" or "vote against" in political ads, keep the money secret.

This legislation needs to be seen for what it is and what it would do . . . the next phase of an all-out assault on democracy being waged on multiple fronts to subvert the idea that those who govern can do so only with the consent of the governed.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Say It Ain't So, PBS

An eye-opening article in New Yorker magazine tells the story of how public television backed away from its commitment to fund a new documentary film titled "Citizen Koch." Readers learn that the politically meddlesome billionaire David Koch has given public television $23 million, and don't have to read between many lines to come to the understanding that public television cooled on the project in hopes of appeasing Koch.

It's always galling to see a news organization compromise its journalistic principles in the face of financial or political pressures. It's especially painful when you consider that the plan was to air the film on the PBS program "Independent Lens."


I know "Citizen Koch" well. I was interviewed at length for the project and appear in the film. It made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah at the beginning of the year and got its first screening in our state at last month's Wisconsin Film Festival.

With public television pulling out, the movie's producers have to find other ways to bring it to audiences. That's where you come in. You can watch the trailer and organize a screening in your community. While you're at it, you might consider contacting the PBS ombudsman who is billed as "as an independent internal critic within PBS (who) reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity."

Thursday, May 09, 2013

It's Time For GAB To Reconsider Surrender

Wisconsin's campaign finance disclosure system once was the envy of the nation but now leaves a great deal to be desired. That sad reality came into sharp focus with the recent revelation that a private school voucher advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, told its members and funders that it spent close to $2.4 million last year to influence elections in Wisconsin after reporting less than $345,000 in campaign spending to state election authorities.

That hidden $2 million only came to light because of an enterprising news reporter, and now is the subject of a formal complaint seeking an investigation and enforcement of existing disclosure rules. The American Federation for Children was able to hide that electioneering because of a decision made nearly three years ago by Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board.

In March 2010, the GAB unanimously approved an amendment to the state's disclosure rules closing the very loophole AFC exploited last year to keep nearly all of its election spending a secret. The new rules took effect on August 1 of that same year. They remained in effect for nine days. Interest groups on both the left and the right sued the GAB in three different courts. Before any judge ruled on the cases, the GAB surrendered on August 10, agreeing not to enforce key parts of the new rules.

The decision looked like capitulation at the time, but the GAB insisted that under the agreement it still would be able to "require disclosure of the identity of those sponsoring communications that are susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a candidate. Such ads do not need to say 'vote for' or 'support' to be subject to regulation."

Time has told. The GAB has not acted on that ability. Since 2010, not a single group I am familiar with that sponsored messages plainly aiming to elect or defeat candidates but masquerading as "issue ads" has been required to come clean and disclose their election activity, not even in a case where a group ends up admitting publicly that its so-called issue advocacy was really intended to get its favored candidates elected.

It is clear that the GAB is not doing what it said back in 2010 it would be able to do. And the American Federation for Children revelation makes it equally clear it is time for the board to take down the white flag of surrender and start enforcing its disclosure rules in their entirety.

If the GAB does that, it will be sued again. Interest groups on the left and the right will again argue the rules are invalid because the board lacked the authority to make them. They'll say only the Legislature can close the issue ad loophole. There are two problems with this argument. First, state law says interest groups that spend money for a "political purpose" are subject to registration and reporting requirements under the law and the Legislature's own attorneys said the GAB has the authority to define what "political purpose" means. Second, Wisconsin's elections board has always defined what constitutes a political purpose and these interest groups never challenged the board's authority when past definitions were to their liking. It's only when the definition threatened to cramp their style that they questioned the GAB's rulemaking authority.

The special interests also will challenge the constitutionality of the GAB's disclosure rules. The board is on solid ground here as well. In FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that disclosure can be required if an ad is the "functional equivalent" of advocacy for or against a candidate. Roberts went on to explain what he meant by "functional equivalent," namely advocacy that is "susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate." The GAB borrowed his definition for the 2010 amendment to Wisconsin's disclosure rules.

In Citizens United v. FEC, eight of the nine justices on the nation's highest court again came down squarely in favor of disclosure and again upheld Roberts' functional-equivalent test.

Ads like those sponsored by the American Federation for Children clearly meet that test. Groups engaging in such electioneering should have to fully reveal their activities. The Government Accountability Board has the authority and the power and the legal grounds to make that happen, if not the nerve.

It is time for the GAB to summon the nerve.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Closed Loophole Remains Open

More than three years ago, the retired judges who serve on the state Government Accountability Board acted unanimously to close a gaping loophole in Wisconsin's disclosure rules for election campaigning  putting a stop to the phony "issue ad" gambit employed by interest groups that involves careful avoidance of what have come to be known as the "magic words" of election advocacy in order to sidestep disclosure requirements.

Or so they thought.

As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice's recent story about hidden election spending by a national group pushing school privatization makes clear, the issue ad loophole the GAB closed is still very much open . . . and coming in quite handy to groups like the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, thank you very much.

Say what? How can a closed loophole be open?

The GAB's amendment to Wisconsin's campaign finance disclosure rules is on the books, sure enough. But it's not being enforced.

It's hard to fathom why that is. After all, the amended rule's language was taken directly from a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said it's not necessary for an ad to contain magic words like "vote for," "vote against," "elect" or "defeat" to be subject to disclosure requirements. The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts said groups sponsoring ads amounting to the "functional equivalent" of advocacy for or against a candidate also could be required to disclose their spending and funding sources. Roberts went on to spell out what "functional equivalent" means. The GAB applied Roberts' test to the new disclosure rules for Wisconsin.

Then, while ruling in favor of unlimited election spending in the Citizens United case in 2010, eight of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices again came down squarely in favor of disclosure of the kind of activity the American Federation for Children engaged in last year. Only Clarence Thomas disagreed.

Yet, as Bice reported, the American Federation for Children told its members and funders that it spent $2.4 million influencing Wisconsin elections in 2012, but only reported about $345,000 worth of spending to state election authorities. In reporting on the complaint the Democracy Campaign filed against AFC, Bice wrote the "difference in what the federation disclosed is due to so-called issue ads that were run by the federation during the 2012 election. Groups are not required to say how much they spend on these types of TV and radio spots...."

Actually, they are required to say. Wisconsin's disclosure rules require them to say. And the highest court in the land has made it very clear these kinds of disclosure requirements are legally valid and constitutionally sound.

But more than three years after those judges who make up the Government Accountability Board acted unanimously to establish the new rules for electioneering disclosure, the agency still is not enforcing them.

So the issue ad hoax continues.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Castrated By Money's Grip

Yesterday I argued that Democrats had better grow a pair before even thinking about beating Scott Walker. Today let's turn our attention to why so many Democrats have no balls to begin with.

Despite a steadily growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, Democrats have been unwilling or unable to make the case for ending corporate welfare and other disastrous trickle-down economic policies. At best they have been unreliable champions of working-class causes; at worst they aid and abet those devoted to feeding the rich and paying ransom to the multinationals.

You can see why this is when you pull back the curtain and look at who is pulling the levers and pushing the buttons. Even before Act 10 kneecapped most public sector unions, Wisconsin Democrats were getting $6 from business interests for every dollar they were getting from labor unions.

Democrats in our state used to compete quite successfully for rural votes. Today they are getting hammered in farm country. That should come as no surprise. Democrats have no rural agenda. They rarely talk about rural issues and even more rarely seek to solve rural problems. There is a reason for that, too. We've done the zip code analyses. There are more than 900 zip codes in Wisconsin. Most of the political money comes from just 32 of them. They are all urban or suburban. Rural people don't make campaign contributions. Politicians can't raise money addressing the challenges facing rural communities.

Neither major party is acting in a way that reflects the will of the people. They are serving their masters. They cater to those who butter their bread. This strangles voices on both sides who would speak to how government can work in the public interest and promote the common good. But it hurts Democrats the most.

The Democratic Party is seen as the party of government. That's a curse these days when most people do not believe the government is working for them. Most do not believe elected officials are hearing their voices or doing their will. They are convinced the politicians are doing the bidding of their big donors. And they are right. Good luck winning elections as the party of government at a time when government is almost universally considered corrupt.

In the face of all this, Democratic operatives and campaign consultants keep painting by numbers, pretending to be politically savvy above all else, putting on airs about knowing how the game is played. These insiders keep lecturing candidates about how winning is all about raising money and watching polls and doing TV and raising more money.

I suspect they know this is a path to ruin for their side, but they are too risk averse and not creative enough to innovate. Their savvy pose is a mask. It covers intellectual and strategic bankruptcy. They don't know how to escape the trap they are in. They can't win the money game, but they don't know how to win without money.

The proverbial 800-pound gorilla on the Democratic side has been the state teachers union. Thanks to Act 10, that gorilla just lost over half its weight. WEAC sunk more than $2.3 million into the 2010 elections, but just over $946,000 into 2012 races.

Yet the savvy political players on the Democratic side keep droning on about how the path to political power is paved with money. Never mind that Tom Barrett ceaselessly dialed for dollars and pulled in an impressive $6.6 million, only to be hopelessly outgunned by Scott Walker, who had more than $36 million. Never mind that Democrats took the consultants' mantra to heart and focused like a laser beam on fundraising, hauling in another $6.6 million for last year's state legislative contests, only to have their Republican opponents spend $9.9 million against them.

Never mind that Democrats can't speak their minds and can't act with the courage of their convictions for fear of alienating the donor class. Never mind that this segment of society won't give Democrats nearly as much as they give Republicans even if Democrats do cower before them.

Never mind all that. Wisconsin Democrats, your party's establishment continues to send an unmistakable message about where your focus needs to be and where your energy must be expended. In the nearly two decades the Democracy Campaign has been operating, the Democrats' state party chair has reached out to us one time. That was to ask if we would support legislation he was discussing with his Republican counterpart to increase the limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties.

As politely as I could, I told him he was out of his cotton picking mind.