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.