Thursday, October 30, 2014

Walker To Out-of-State Interests: Keep Your Celebrities, But Send Money. . . To Me

"I don't need people from outside of this state.  This is about me and the people of the state of Wisconsin."  comments by Governor Scott Walker reported by during a campaign stop in Pewaukee this week.

Walker's comments referred to recent visits by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton on behalf of his opponent, Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke, in next Tuesday's elections.

But if that's how the governor feels about outside influence in Wisconsin elections then maybe he should return the $13 million in individual campaign contributions he has accepted from outside Wisconsin since January 2013 to run his reelection campaign.  These outside contributions are responsible for about 52 percent of his total $25.1 million in identifiable individual contributions he accepted from 2013 through October 20, 2014, according to a Democracy Campaign analysis.

And Walker's out-of-state haul in direct contributions doesn't count the millions of dollars in out-of-state influence being spent to support him by electioneering groups led by the Washington D.C.-based Republican Governors Association which he has encouraged and thanked for its help.  The association's 527 group has raised tens of millions of dollars from wealthy individuals, multi-national corporations and trade groups across the country to help Walker and other Republican governors and candidates win elections.

As for Burke, the Democratic candidate raised $2.8 million or 31 percent of her total $9 million in identifiable individual campaign contributions from outside Wisconsin, according to a review of campaign finance reports she has filed since she entered the race in October 2013.

Like Walker, Burke has benefited from millions of dollars in outside electioneering spending chiefly led by the Greater Wisconsin Committee through its issue ad and 527 groups and a political action committee fueled by numerous state and national labor unions and Democratic ideological organizations that get millions of dollars in contributions from wealthy business interests.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transportation Amendment Was Birthed And Nurtured By Special Interests

With few exceptions the news reports and editorials about the proposed constitutional amendment voters are being asked to approve on next Tuesday's ballot don't get into where it came from and why it got there.

The measure is a special interest-backed plan to amend the Wisconsin Constitution to prevent elected officials from being able to use the state transportation fund to pay other bills in the future like they did during the Doyle administration. At first whiff, the proposed amendment seems like a good idea given the growing short- and long-term shortfall the fund faces to pay for the state's wish list of major highway projects.

But the amendment isn't a solution to the transportation fund's cash shortage because it doesn't cut highway spending or raise more cash to pay for projects.  The concrete protection the proposed amendment grants the fund isn't afforded other important pots of money used for health care, education, the environment, poverty and other programs.  Perhaps more critically, the amendment will tie the hands of public officials from ever using money from the fund for non-transportation purposes under any circumstances, even an economic emergency or widespread public health or safety crisis.

The proposal is before voters because a group of wealthy special interests contributed nearly one-third  $5.5 million  of the $18.3 million large individual and political action committee contributions accepted by the current legislature, which gave it final approval between 2011 and July 2014.

Those interests include manufacturing, business, construction, tourism, agriculture, transportation, natural resources, road builders and a couple of labor unions that represent workers in the industry.   They support the proposed amendment because the state transportation fund  fueled by state gas taxes and vehicle registration fees  pays for major highway projects, road maintenance and other transportation costs and services those industries build or use.

That's how the amendment got on the ballot.

Where did it come from?  The proposal is a hybrid of a plan developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a pro-business organization that connects powerful business interests and big campaign contributors with state legislators around the country to develop model legislation on economic and social issues that elected officials can introduce in their states. 

Wisconsin governors have no authority to approve or reject proposed constitutional amendments, which must be approved by two successive legislatures and then by voters in a statewide referendum like the one on the November 4 ballot.  But GOP Governor Scott Walker, who supports the amendment and criticized his predecessor for raiding the transportation fund when the state faced a multi-billion dollar deficit, is also a major beneficiary of the amendment's special interest backers.  Those interests contributed slightly more than a third  $15.7 million  of the $45.1 million in large individual and PAC contributions the governor accepted between 2011 and July 2014.

And whether the amendment passes  as is likely  or not next Tuesday, Walker and the legislature still face the politically distasteful problem of how to close the fund's multi-million dollar deficit and sell a solution to voters that is likely to include tax and fee increases.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Founders' Design Corrupted

Our nation's founders wrote the Federalist Papers to articulate their vision for a new independent nation and justify their proposed design for a new government. They wrote using pseudonyms due to fear for the authors' liberty and life if the crown discovered their true identities.

Writing as "Publius" in Federalist No. 52, one of the founders (widely thought by historians to be James Madison, although some believe it may have been Alexander Hamilton) argued for a "government which ought to be dependent on the people alone."

He outlined principles of representation through elections that would produce such a condition.

A government dependent on the people alone. That was the founders' design. That was their gift to us.

You and I know we do not have that today. You and I know this design has been fundamentally corrupted.

Today's government officials are not dependent on the people alone. They have conflicting dependencies. Competing dependencies.

Elected representatives are supposed to take their cues from the voters alone. But with election campaigning so insanely expensive, those representatives have little choice but to also take cues from their campaign donors. And the donor population is not the same as the voting population. On average, state legislators get two-thirds of their campaign money from people who cannot vote for them because these financial backers live outside the legislators' districts. Governor Scott Walker gets more than half of his money from people who are ineligible to vote for him because they live outside Wisconsin's borders.

This corruption of the founders' design has very tangible costs.

A Democracy Campaign report identified close to four dozen actions taken by legislators and the governor just since January 2013 that provided at least $760 million worth of benefits to special interests in the form of tax breaks and other policy favors.

These decisions cost the average family of four $528. If you read the entire list of actions, you will be hard-pressed to find a single one that benefits you. There is a sales tax exemption for companies that print and deliver junk mail. There is another sales tax exemption for aircraft parts.

When you go to the department store to buy a pair of shoes or some clothing, you pay the sales tax. But if you have enough money to own an airplane, you no longer have to pay tax on parts for your plane. If you are in the junk mail business, you don't have to pay the state sales tax anymore either.

Manufacturers of lead paint have been given protection from future product liability lawsuits. Those who send their children to private schools now get an income tax deduction. The list goes on and on.

Here in Wisconsin we've been told repeatedly that the state is broke and government must do less for us. Yet those who bankroll election campaigns have been given more. At least $760 million more.

The few benefit at the expense of the many because the founders' design has been corrupted and we do not have a government dependent on the people alone.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ultrawealthy Pump $3.8 Million In 90 Days Into Elections

Wisconsin contributors gave $3.8 million in three months to political groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash on outside electioneering activities, and most of the contributions went to groups that have been sponsoring negative mailings and broadcast ads in the state's November 4 elections.

The contributions flowed to so-called 527 groups between July and September, and the bulk of the cash  $3.4 million or 90 percent  came from just two dozen donors.

Coupled with contributions in the first 18 months of the 2013-14 election cycle, wealthy Wisconsin individuals, corporations, unions and trade and ideological groups have doled out a total of $9.1 million to 527 groups, including about $6.6 million to 527 groups involved in the statewide and legislative elections.

Topping the Wisconsin contributions was another $1 million from a Milwaukee couple  Mike and Mary Sue Shannon  to the Republican Governors Association, which has spent at least $2.1 million on mostly television advertising to support GOP Governor Scott Walker’s reelection bid. The Shannons have contributed a total $2.5 million to the national group since January 2013, according to reports the 527 groups must file with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Mike and Mary Sue Shannon

On the Democratic side, Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein and her Brico Fund doled out $888,000 to two 527 groups  EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters  located in Washington D.C. The Brico Fund doled out $738,000 to EMILY’s List and Uihlein personally donated $150,000 to the league between July and September. Since January 2013 the Brico Fund and Uihlein have contributed a little over $1.3 million to 527 groups that back women candidates and environmental causes.

Six 527 groups that collected the bulk of Wisconsin contributions  about $3.23 million between July and September and $6.6 million since January 2013  have spent millions of dollars on independent expenditures and phony ads in the upcoming statewide and legislative elections, mostly on the governor’s race between Walker and Democrat Mary Burke.

Those groups and their Wisconsin contributions since January 2013 are: The Republican Governors Association, $4.05 million; EMILY’s List, $1.06 million; the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, $863,400, Republican State Leadership Committee, $372,382, League of Conservation Voters, $200,000 and America’s Political Action Committee, $65,000.

Up-to-date election spending by these groups is unknown because some of the groups engage in undisclosed issue ads yet to be tallied and the latest independent expenditure reports filed by the other groups with the state don’t have to be filed until the end of the month. Earlier independent expenditure reports showed the Republican Governors Association and Greater Wisconsin have spent $3.3 million.

The 527 reports to the IRS also showed the Republican Attorneys General Association gave $300,000 to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, which recently began airing television ads in support of GOP attorney general candidate Brad Schimel.

The most unusual contribution in the 527 reports was a $25,000 contribution by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a longtime supporter of pro-business legislation and Republican candidates, to the Democratic-leaning Greater Wisconsin Political Fund.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Door Number Four

Americans clearly are sour on politics. According the latest Gallup public opinion polling, the number one problem in the U.S. is “dissatisfaction with government, Congress and politicians” along with “poor leadership, corruption and abuse of power.”

New Associated Press polling shows slightly more than a quarter of Americans say they trust Republicans to manage the government, while just under a quarter trust the Democrats. The biggest bloc of citizens say they don’t trust either major party. And the AP survey showed that public confidence in the government’s ability to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country continues to slip, with 74% now saying they have little or no confidence, compared with 70% who said the same last December.

Both parties are failing our country, leaving most Americans feeling betrayed and politically homeless. But the citizenry’s response to these circumstances leaves the most to be desired.

We’ve all been conditioned to believe we have only three options. Behind door number one is whatever the two major parties offer up. A few partisans on either side are more or less satisfied with what’s behind this door, but most Americans aren’t. Most feel they are forced to hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils. Most look for another door.

Behind door number two is an occasional third-party or independent candidate. But whether it’s Ross Perot one time or Ralph Nader another, this door leads to a dead end. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy. Ours is a two-party system. Supporting a third party invariably ends in disappointment.

That leaves door number three. Behind it is resignation. Sadly, a great many of us are choosing this route, throwing up our hands in disgust and hightailing it for the sidelines. This withdrawal from civic life is now endemic to American politics.

Three doors. No happy ending to be found behind any of them.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a fourth door. We’ve been trained not to recognize it or even acknowledge its existence, much less open it. But it is there all the same. It hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes, but when it was found and opened by past generations, what it led to was transformational and landscape altering.

Door number four is what I call a first-party movement. Third-party movements operate on the political fringes, to the left of the Democrats and to the right of the Republicans. Put another way, they seek to clip the wings of the major parties. First-party insurgencies go for the heart. They compete for the affections of the entire electorate. The goal of third-party movements is to have three or more parties. The goal of first-party organizing is to have at least one that is worth a damn. At least one that truly owes its allegiance to the people.

Conditions are growing ripe for an extensive renovation of the nation’s political landscape. The telltale signs of an impending political implosion are visible. The percentage of Americans who refuse to identify with either major parties is at its highest level in three-quarters of a century. The biggest swath of the electorate — by far — is not the Republican loyalists or the Democratic faithful. Nor is it centrist or moderate. It is politically homeless.

If door number four is opened, the two parties will either adapt or perish. The odds that at least one of the parties will cease to exist in its current form are getting shorter by the day.

We have it in our power to put citizens back in the driver’s seat of our government. The two major parties are repellent. We have it in our power to build a political household that people actually want to live in. It can be done. Our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did it. On more than one occasion they opened door number four and freed themselves from the same kinds of traps that ensnare us again today.

We don’t have to make history. We only have to repeat it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Decriminalizing Bribery And Money Laundering

On what planet does anyone think there is not enough money in politics, not enough special interest influence, and too much public awareness of the buying and selling of our government?

Well, on Earth there is Rudolph Randa and the Five Supremes. It's been the better part of a half century since a rock and roll band could get away with a name so lame, so they must be judges.

In 2010 the five-member majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other interest groups can spend as much as they want to influence American elections. And then earlier this year the court doubled down on its infamous Citizens United decision and struck down a key federal limit on campaign contributions made by individuals.

In a country of well over 300 million people, just over 1,200 individuals reached the $123,000 limit on overall donations to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. The ruling majority on the high court found intolerable the way the law cramped the style of 0.000003% of the nation's population and invalidated that law.

A month later Wisconsin's $10,000 annual limit on overall donations from individuals for state and local elections experienced the same fate. Fewer than 300 individuals had managed to bump up against the state limit in 2010 and 2012 elections combined, including 173 living outside Wisconsin. Just like that, five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population had their ability to legally bribe state lawmakers increased exponentially, and they are taking full advantage.

Now this week Randa orders Wisconsin election officials to stop enforcing a law limiting how much candidates can collect from political committees run by special interest groups, parties and legislative campaigns.

Randa is the judge who also ordered a halt to the latest John Doe investigation into political corruption in Wisconsin. He ruled that there is nothing illegal about candidates and interest groups coordinating their election activities.

"Coordination" sounds abstract and mundane and benign. What Randa actually blessed is money laundering. What is under investigation is apparent conspiracy to get around legal limits on political donations as well as disclosure requirements by steering money intended to aid a candidate for state office to a tax-exempt "social welfare" group that does not have to publicly report the origins of its money.

If the skewed judgment of Randa and the Five Supremes stands up over the long haul, Americans will be left with a right to free speech that is proportionate to the size of their bank accounts, two parties joined at the billfold, and a tiny fraction of 1% of the population fully empowered to lord over the rest of us.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Muzzling Democracy

Beer, billboards, sick days, soda, shooting at stuff, mining and manure.

These were some of the subjects the Republican-led legislature and Governor Scott Walker have told communities they can’t properly handle and imposed state laws that slashed local control – usually with the support of powerful special interests that contributed about $47 million since 2010 to partisan candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau report in June identified 64 measures the legislature and the governor have approved since 2011 that force communities to pay for state mandates or seize their authority to make decisions about public health, environmental, land use, transportation and other matters.

In addition to stripping locals of their policymaking autonomy, more than half of the proposals were barely aired in public. Thirty-six measures were tucked into two massive state budget bills in 2011 and 2013 that aren’t meant to include non-spending policy items and often got little or no attention.

Here are some of the proposals that took away local government control and the campaign contributions from the special interests behind them:

 The 2013-15 state budget contained dozens of non-spending policy items that didn’t belong in it, including 16 proposals that removed the authority of communities to enact local laws. Some of these budget provisions prohibited communities from enforcing public employee residency requirements, siting cell phone and radio towers; limiting the sale of certain foods and beverages; and enacting commercial erosion controls measures tougher than state law. More than a dozen special interests supported the budget because generous tax breaks and exemptions, environmental deregulation and the hijacking of local control make it cheaper and easier for them to conduct business. Those interests included manufacturers, business, real estate, construction, transportation and agriculture concerns which contributed $4.6 million in 2012 and 2013 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and $15.7 million to the governor;

 Exempt iron mining companies from meeting local zoning ordinances dealing with public health, environment and land use. The measure was passed in 2013 to deregulate iron mining in Wisconsin for an out-of-state mining company that wants to build a large open-pit mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The proposal was supported by more than a dozen special interests including business, manufacturing, construction, transportation and natural resources that contributed $7 million between 2011 and 2013 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and $37 million to Walker;

 Prevent communities from enacting or enforcing ordinances stricter than state law involving the construction and remodeling of public buildings. The measure was approved in 2014 with the support of the construction industry and the state carpenters union which contributed $733,365 between 2011 and 2013 to legislators and nearly $4 million to the governor;

 Restrict the ability of communities to regulate sport shooting ranges and bow-and-arrow and crossbow hunting, and provide shooting ranges with greater legal immunity for negligence. Legislative approval for the three laws that accomplished these changes was led by majority Republicans with support from pro-gun and hunting groups who contributed $10,325 to GOP legislators and $17,175 to Walker between 2011 and 2013. But direct contributions from pro-gun interests is minute compared to their spending on outside electioneering activities. For instance the National Rifle Association, the nation’s preeminent pro-gun lobby, doled out $863,500 in reported outside electioneering spending to support Republican legislators and Walker between 2011 and 2013;

 Prevent local communities from prohibiting repairs to nonconforming structures, like docks and boathouses, subject to shoreland zoning based on the cost of the repairs and also prevent local ordinances from being stricter than state shoreland regulations. Legislative approval for the 2012 law was led by majority Republicans and drew support from construction and real estate interests which contributed $1.4 million to GOP legislators and about $5.6 million to the governor between 2010 and 2012;

 Establish requirements for communities to make it more difficult to impose development moratoriums, and limit moratoriums to one year plus a six-month extension if necessary. The 2012 law requires communities to have an engineer certify that a proposed development would overburden public facilities and pose a significant threat to public health and safety. Legislative approval was led by majority Republicans and the measure was supported by construction and real estate interests which contributed $1.4 million to GOP legislators and $5.6 million to the governor between 2010 and 2012;

 Prohibit local governments from enacting family and medical leave ordinances on local businesses. The proposal was enacted in 2011 with the backing of construction, tourism, manufacturing, business and other interests which contributed nearly $5.1 million to the legislature between 2010 and 2011, including $4.2 million to Republicans who controlled the Assembly and Senate, and $11.4 million to Walker;

 Prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances that limit the ability of landlords to obtain or use certain information about tenants or prospective tenants, such as income, credit history, court records, and social security numbers; handle security deposits, tenant property and inspections; show the premises to prospective tenants; and impose moratoriums on evicting tenants. These restrictions were in three measures that became law in 2011 and 2013 with support from the construction and real estate industries which contributed about $1.9 million to legislators between 2010 and 2013, including nearly $1.7 million to majority Republicans, and $6.4 million to Walker;

 The 2011-13 state budget was a Trojan horse for 20 provisions that restricted the authority of communities to govern themselves. One controversial item replaced locally issued brewer’s permits with a broader state permit that critics say limits the ability of local brewers to get wholesale licenses as well as where and how they can sell their products. Other budget provisions prohibited regional transit authorities, local regulation of bird hunting preserves, revamped bidding requirements for local, highway and public works projects, and placed strict levy limits on county and municipal governments. It’s nearly impossible to determine which special interests supported any given proposal due to the lack of specific state disclosure requirements. The dozen-plus special interest groups that supported the 2011-13 state budget contributed $5.8 million in 2010 and 2011 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and nearly $9.1 million to Walker.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Grassroots My Ass

Governor Scott Walker’s campaign finance report shows 56,530 itemized individual contributions totaling $7.83 million during the first six months of 2014 – a statistic his campaign claims is indicative of “overwhelming grassroots support for Governor Walker’s campaign to continue moving Wisconsin forward.”

Walker is among dozens of politicians over the years who use the number of campaign contributions to claim they’re really popular with ordinary citizens. But a closer look at the numbers reveals little proof of “overwhelming grassroots support.”

First, the number of itemized contributions came from slightly more than 41,500 donors who represent only seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s estimated 5.8 million residents.

Second, most of Walker contributions and donors were from outside Wisconsin. The governor received $4.39 million or 56 percent of his contributions from nearly 22,000 donors outside the state who can’t vote for him, and $3.43 million or 44 percent from slightly more than 19,500 Wisconsin residents – about three-tenths of 1 percent of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents. About $9,700 worth of the governor’s itemized contributions listed no state or zip code.

Third, Walker’s campaign statement claims 76 percent of the contributions it received were for $75 or less – another statistic meant to show grassroots support – but that’s not where the governor raised most of his money.

A review of his individual contributions shows he received $4.53 million in contributions of $1,000 or more which represents 57 percent of his total individual contributions for the six-month period.

Walker’s Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, hasn’t made the same claim of grassroots support based on her 2014 fundraising – nor should she. Burke’s campaign report showed she accepted 50,518 itemized contributions totaling $3.29 million from slightly more than 35,500 donors who represent only sixth-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s population.

Burke accepted $1.11 million or 34 percent of her total individual contributions from slightly more than 17,600 out-of-state donors who can’t vote for her, and $2.18 million from slightly more than 17,900 Wisconsin residents – about three-tenths of 1 percent of state residents.

And Burke’s take from contributions of $1,000 or more totals $1.02 million or 31 percent of her individual contributions.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Big Donor Seeks OK For Golf Course Project In State Park

The company led by a generous contributor to Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed building a road and maintenance facility in a state park that would serve a new high-end golf course on company-owned land adjacent to the park.

The Kohler Company’s request for a conditional use permit to develop the new course on its land is scheduled for a July 16 hearing before the Town of Wilson Plan Commission.

In addition, the Department of Natural Resources must approve an easement before the golf course maintenance facility and road can be built on state property. The affected acreage includes forest and wetlands in the Kohler-Andrae State Park near Lake Michigan.

The Kohler project comes amid years of criticism the Walker administration has pushed to make the DNR a more business-friendly agency at the expense of safeguarding the environment.

Kohler Company employees contributed $51,304 between 2009 and 2013 to legislative and statewide candidates. Most of the contributions – $44,500 – were made by company president Herb Kohler Jr. Walker received $42,254 followed by GOP Senators Joe Leibham of Sheboygan at $3,950 and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau at $2,000 from Kohler and his employees.

Kohler developed Whistling Straits golf course which will host the 2015 PGA Championship, one of professional golf’s four major tournaments. The course also hosted the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championships.

Companies Cited In Investigative Report Gave Generously To Governor

Three companies cited in a recent WKOW-TV investigative report that dealt with outsourcing jobs in Wisconsin to foreign countries after they accepted millions of dollars in tax breaks from the state contributed more than $6,500 to state and legislative candidates from 2011 through 2013.

Executives of Eaton Corporation, its subsidiary Cooper Power Systems, and Plexus Corporation made most of their contributions – $5,553 – to Republican Governor Scott Walker during the three-year period. Tax breaks were awarded to Eaton and Plexus beginning in 2011 by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a state agency created and chaired by the governor to foster business growth and job creation through tax credits, grants and other financial incentives.

Campaign finance records showed Cooper Power Systems executives contributed $4,305 from 2011 through 2013, including $4,080 to the governor. Plexus Corporation executives contributed $1,395 to state and legislative candidates during the period, including $640 to Walker, and Eaton Corporation executives gave $833 – all to the governor.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sexed-Up Virgins

For the better part of 20 years, we've been told by shadowy interest groups and their spin doctors and hired guns that the campaign ads they run aren't political ads at all. They are merely discussing issues. Never mind that most of the groups never say a word about these issues when they are actually being debated at the Capitol. They only feel the urge to discuss in the weeks before elections. And never mind that the groups that are lobbying at the Capitol choose to discuss entirely different issues when election season rolls around.

Never minding all that, these groups insist that their ads aren't aimed at influencing voters. They insist they have nothing to do with the candidates and are not taking sides in elections. They are just bringing up issues. And because they are just discussing issues, they claim their ads technically have no political purpose. The technicality is the absence of words like "vote for," "vote against," "elect" or "defeat" in their messages (as if saying such words is the only way to make it plain as day in an advertisement what you want the viewer or listener to think and do). Exploiting this technicality, they do not have to obey campaign contribution limits and they do not have to publicly disclose where their money comes from.

This has always been a farce, but it is a farce that has been blessed by a generation of lawmakers, election officials and judges.

This farce has been very, very good to them. It has put them in the captain's seat of the ship of state. But they are not satisfied. Now they want to "discuss issues" in a way that enables them to evade contribution limits and disclosure requirements while also plotting strategy with candidates and coordinating their activities with the candidates' campaigns. The same candidates they've insisted they had nothing to do with for the past 15 or 20 years.

They want it both ways. They want to be legally regarded as virgins while getting laid at the same time.

And they are counting on the current batch of judges to grant their wish.

Friday, June 20, 2014

If We Follow John Doe

John Doe is the name given to unknown or anonymous targets of a criminal investigation or similarly unidentified defendants or plaintiffs in legal proceedings. Wisconsin has come to know John Doe well. A little more than a decade ago, "John Doe" was actually five of the state's most powerful legislators as well as several of their aides. Criminal charges for misconduct in public office were filed against all of them, and ultimately political careers were ended in what has come to be known as Wisconsin's "caucus scandal."

More recently, John Doe turned out to be six close associates of Governor Scott Walker who were convicted of a variety of crimes. What was unearthed during that investigation prompted another, and in this new drama John Doe is Walker himself, along with key political allies of the governor like R.J. Johnson, Deb Jordahl and Eric O'Keefe, and groups like O'Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth.

While the fascination with who John Doe is and what he has been up to is entirely understandable, more attention should be paid to where Mr. Doe is trying to lead us.

Previously sealed documents made public this week by court order show that prosecutors accuse Walker of overseeing a "criminal scheme" to illegally coordinate election campaign activities with supposedly independent groups. Longstanding Wisconsin law requires groups wishing to intervene in elections by making "independent disbursements" to swear an oath that they do not "act in cooperation or consultation with any candidate or agent or authorized committee of a candidate...."

It has been settled law in Wisconsin that this prohibition on coordination between candidates and interest groups applies to organizations doing election-related "issue advocacy." Application of the coordination ban to so-called "issue ad" groups was challenged in the late 1990s in the case involving a group that was found to be coordinating with Justice Jon Wilcox’s 1997 campaign for reelection to the state Supreme Court.

State election authorities heavily fined both Wilcox’s campaign as well as political operative Mark Block, who ran the issue ad-sponsoring Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation. At the time, the fines were the largest in state history for campaign finance violations. Block also was banned from involvement in Wisconsin elections for three years. The state's enforcement actions were contested in court, and ultimately were upheld in a 1999 ruling.

John Doe's aim in this current matter is to unsettle that settled law. Federal judge Rudolph Randa recently obliged, putting the investigation on hold for the time being. Judge Randa threw that settled law out the window. He bought Doe's contention that coordination should be allowed, ruling that the ban on coordination applies only to groups engaged in "express advocacy" — messages that explicitly urge people to vote for or against a candidate — not "issue advocacy" that promotes or opposes candidates without coming right out and saying how people should vote.

Randa does not have the final say on this. But if his ruling stands up on appeal and such coordination becomes legal, we will enter a new world of shadow campaigns where all of the money will be dark money. Candidates will be able to orchestrate campaigns carried out by surrogates who do not have to abide by campaign contribution limits or disclosure requirements. Voters will be kept totally in the dark about who is paying to put candidates in office. Elected officials will be spared the discomfort of journalists and others connecting the dots between who gives them political donations and who benefits from their policy decisions. There will be no more visible conflicts of interest. Public ignorance will be the politicians' bliss.

John Doe does not want a settlement in this case. He wants a test case, one that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Five of the nine justices have shown ample disrespect for precedents and a willingness to write new law from the bench in other recent campaign finance cases. In Citizens United the court overturned more than a century of settled law to allow unlimited spending on elections by corporations and other interest groups. In McCutcheon the five-member majority invalidated the decades-old federal aggregate limit on campaign contributions to candidates. John Doe is counting on more such judicial activism to sweep away the prohibition on coordination.

If John Doe gets what he wants, the result will be shadow campaigns overseen by candidates but carried out by anonymous proxies. Unlimited donations. No disclosure. An electoral black hole preventing any light from escaping and causing anything remotely resembling democracy to implode.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

One Way Kochs Are Like Rihanna

Thinly veiled. That's what the billionaire Koch brothers have in common with the pop star Rihanna.

First the Kochs unleashed a $900,000 TV ad blitz to support Governor Scott Walker's policies and boost his reelection fortunes. As we've noted, this advertising campaign is underwritten by Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Kochs' tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charitable organization that is not supposed to use any resources to participate or intervene in political campaigns.

Now AFPF is stuffing mailboxes across the state with a full-color glossy flyer that likewise sings the praises of Walker's signature legislative accomplishment and plays off his pet slogan "open for business."

Leaving no political button unpushed, the mailer invokes the theme of the iconic 1984 "Morning in America" ad appealing to voters to keep Ronald Reagan in the White House. It proclaims that "Wisconsin is working again" and is "back on the right track." Then the Kochs take credit for it all, boasting that "Wisconsin is enjoying better days and a brighter future" because "we passed the Budget Repair Act" otherwise known as Act 10.

This is electioneering, obvious to everyone but the current crop of judges, lawmakers and election officials who study it and mysteriously conclude this kind of message has no political purpose whatsoever. Because it lacks the requisite political purpose in the eyes of these beholders, billionaires like Charles and David Koch can spend a not-so-small fortune on this "free" speech, propagandize the state's population about the blessings of their agenda, get a tax deduction courtesy of American taxpayers to defray their expenses, all the while avoiding public disclosure of their activities.

Put another way, according to the prevailing law of the land, this flyer is an act of charity. It promotes social welfare. It does not promote Scott Walker's reelection in any way, shape or form. It is not a political ad.

The prevailing law of the land is an absurdity. And it is an obscenity, a thin veil over an ugly truth, namely the purchasing of our government by modern-day robber barons.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Taxpayers Subsidizing 'Free Speech' For Billionaires

That the billionaire Koch brothers are spending upwards of $1 million to launch an election-year advertising campaign in Wisconsin to sing the praises of Governor Scott Walker's policies comes as no surprise. What might not be readily apparent to casual observers is that taxpayers are subsidizing this electioneering.

The ad is sponsored by an arm of the Kochs' operation that is organized as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, meaning that the donations that went to pay for this advocacy are tax deductible. By blanketing the airwaves across Wisconsin with this pro-Walker message, the Kochs are reducing their tax liability.

IRS rules governing 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status – meant for charitable and educational organizations to promote “social welfare” – prohibit such groups from using any resources to participate or intervene in political campaigns.

On these grounds, the Democracy Campaign filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in 2012 asking the IRS to investigate what appeared to us to be clear violations of the tax-exempt status of Americans for Prosperity Foundation and two other 501(c)(3) "charities." The IRS replied with a letter dated March 22, 2012 saying the agency "has an ongoing examination program to ensure that exempt organizations comply with the applicable provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. The information you submitted will be considered for this program." The letter went on to say "we cannot disclose the status of any investigation." That's the last we heard. Given that AFPF is doing more of the kind of advertising that prompted our 2012 complaint, one has to assume the IRS has blessed this activity. Evidently the IRS does not believe this kind of advertising serves any political purpose. Watch the ad and judge for yourself.

At the invitation of the IRS, we have followed up on our 2012 complaint with a letter calling the agency's attention to the AFPF's latest election-year advertising and requesting enforcement action. We await the taxman's response.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nope, Nothing Political About This Ad

Imagine two kajillionaires, one a pioneer of Internet commerce and the other a spectacularly successful investment fund manager. One lives on the east coast, the other on the west coast. They are known to be partial to liberal causes. They are losing sleep, awakened repeatedly by recurring nightmares. Always the same dream . . . Scott Walker sitting behind the big desk in the Oval Office.

They figure the best way to blow up Walker's road to the White House once and for all is to doom his reelection as Wisconsin's governor. They instruct political operatives they know to set up a tax-exempt social welfare group called "Hacked-Off Badgers." They each funnel several million dollars to the organization.

In the month leading up to the November 2014 election, the group buys weeks worth of advertising time on every television station in Wisconsin. It airs this message, accompanied by ominous music and grainy images of shuttered factories and men in hardhats line up outside the unemployment office:
Scott Walker is a college dropout. And he has been on the dole ever since. Every job he's had has been a government job. That explains why he has no clue how to get Wisconsin's economy moving. Why our state has been dead last in job creation with Scott Walker as governor. Walker's dismal performance doesn't hurt him any. He just keeps feeding from the public trough. But can the rest of us afford to have the worst governor Wisconsin has ever seen? – Authorized and paid for by Hacked-Off Badgers
A pack of federal judges in Chicago just ruled last week that such an ad has no political purpose. Because the message contains no words such as "vote for," "vote against," "elect," "defeat," "support" or "oppose," it is not a political ad. Because Hacked-Off Badgers did not say any of the magic words that ads with a political purpose must contain, the group does not have to disclose how much it paid to launch this attack on Walker, nor does it have to reveal who put up the money.

The political operatives doing the bidding of our two kajillionaires set up Hacked-Off Badgers under a federal law – 26 U.S.C. §501(c)(4) – designed for the creation of groups "not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare." The law exempts from taxation the "net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes."

In writing regulations to implement the law, the Internal Revenue Service bizarrely took the position that an organization "is operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community."

You read right. Exclusively means primarily. So a 501(c)(4) group like Hacked-Off Badgers can spend millions to air their attack on Walker even though the law says the "promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office." Under IRS guidelines, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity. And for good measure, federal judges have determined that ads like the one sponsored by Hacked-Off Badgers are not political ads at all. Because those magic words are absent, the purpose of the Hacked-Off Badgers' message must be "charitable, educational, or recreational."

Take your pick.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Judges Put Ignorance, Bias On Display

Yesterday a federal appeals court in Chicago struck down Wisconsin rules requiring disclosure of election-season "issue ads" sponsored by interest groups. The court said state election authorities exceeded their legal authority in establishing the rules.

The ruling changes nothing, because the state had not been enforcing the now-invalidated rules. But the decision does shed additional light on how politicized judges and courts have become.

The judges on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals seemed flummoxed by the rules established by the state Government Accountability Board back in 2010 as well as the underlying state law. “Like other campaign-finance systems, Wisconsin’s is labyrinthian and difficult to decipher without a background in this area of the law,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the court.

Wisconsin law says if a group engages in activities for a political purpose, it is subject to disclosure requirements and has to respect any applicable campaign finance restrictions. The GAB rules were based on the reasonable and demonstrably correct conclusion that interest group "issue ads" in the weeks before an election have a political purpose. It's hard to see what is "labyrinthian" about that.

Part of the problem might be that Wisconsin's rules were defended in court by a state agency headed by an opponent of such regulation. But even if Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen didn't exactly put his heart into making the state's case, that's no excuse for federal judges finding a longstanding and often-litigated Wisconsin law "difficult to decipher."

Given the hypocrisy at the core of the federal court's judgment, all this talk about how hard it is to make heads or tails of age-old state campaign finance laws looks like little more than political cover.

Again, Wisconsin law has said for a very long time that if groups engage in activities for a political purpose, they have to publicly disclose both their spending and sources of funding and also raise the money in legally permissible ways. The old state Elections Board approved a rule saying that messages not containing words like "vote for," "vote against," "elect," "defeat," "support" or "oppose" have no political purpose. Neither the 7th Circuit nor any other court ever ruled that the Elections Board exceeded its authority by interpreting "political purpose" in this bizarre way.

But when the GAB replaced the Elections Board and proceeded to replace its predecessor's rule with a new one based on a far-more sensible test to determine which activities have a political purpose and which ones don't, judges suddenly find the GAB lacks the legal authority to write such rules. Yesterday's court decision keeps the Elections Board's magic-words test in force.

The 7th Circuit's decision leaves Wisconsin voters in the dark about who is paying for millions of dollars worth of political attack ads. But the obvious double standard that is at the heart of the court's ruling shines a very bright light on how judges increasingly are not deciding cases based on a consistent application of fair and just legal principles, but rather are bending facts and laws to fit their own political biases.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Out Of Necessity, For The 28th Time

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court dropped a bomb on the American political landscape with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC allowing unlimited election spending by corporations, unions and other interest groups. The impact of the blast was felt across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, we already had a full-blown campaign arms race on our hands before Citizens United, but in the ruling's wake we've seen election spending more than triple.

To reach the conclusion that wealthy interests should be able to spend as much as they want to influence our elections, five of the nine justices married two legal doctrines that do not owe their origins to the plain words of the Constitution or the First Amendment but rather are judicial inventions.

The first is the idea that corporations are people. Ages ago the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that people could be property, giving the judiciary's blessing to the institution of slavery. Now the court is holding that property can be a person.

The second doctrine that was joined in court-ordered matrimony to produce the Citizens United ruling is the notion that money equals speech. If you share the justices' belief that money is speech, then you will have to get comfortable with the idea of your employer compensating you for your labor with a pep talk instead of a paycheck. And good luck with the electric company when you send a voice recording to pay your utility bill.

In 2012, 32 donors to federal SuperPACs, the offspring of Citizens United and a related case called SpeechNow v. FEC, gave as much to influence elections as 3.7 million Americans gave to the Obama and Romney campaigns combined. If money equals speech, then each of those 32 SuperPAC donors spoke at 115,000 times the volume of each of the people who gave much smaller amounts to Romney and Obama. More than 300 million Americans gave nothing at all. The mute button was on for them.

A few weeks ago the same slim five-member majority doubled down on Citizens United in a new case called McCutcheon v. FEC and dropped another bomb on American democracy. While Citizens United gave the green light to interest groups to write a blank check for election advertising they sponsor themselves, McCutcheon lifts the lid on what wealthy donors can give directly to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

In McCutcheon, the court struck down the federal aggregate limit on campaign contributions. That limit was about $123,000. In a country of well over 300 million people, a mere 1,219 donors reached that limit in 2012. One of them whose style was cramped was Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon. He wants to give more. The same five justices who gave us Citizens United obliged him. Now a single wealthy donor will be able to give $3.6 million to federal candidates and committees.

Wisconsin is one of several states that have laws similar to the federal aggregate limit that was just tossed by the Supreme Court. Ours is an annual limit of $10,000 on total contributions to state and local candidates, parties and political committees. In 2010 and 2012 combined, only 299 donors – including 173 who don't live in Wisconsin – reached the $10,000 limit. These donors' numbers are equal to five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population, although most of them are not Wisconsin residents.

One of the mega-donors who is chafing under the $10,000 limit is Racine businessman Fred Young, who is challenging the state law in court. If he succeeds, a tiny group of millionaires and billionaires will see their ability to influence state and local elections expanded exponentially. If Wisconsin's $10,000 aggregate limit on donations had not been in place in 2012, a single donor would have been give candidates and parties at least $6.8 million to influence state and local elections in our state.

The First Amendment is only 45 words long. The word "money" is not among those 45 words. And you can read the entire Constitution from the first word ("We") to the very last word of the 27th Amendment and you will not find the word "corporation" a single time. Five members of the Supreme Court have tortured the plain meaning of these founding documents to effectively remove the "r" from free speech and further empower the wealthiest and most privileged among us.

When judges issue rulings so at odds with bedrock principles of democracy and core American values like equality, liberty and justice for all, it is up to the people to overturn them. It is up to us to secure passage of a 28th Amendment clarifying that money is not speech, corporations are not people, elections are not auctions and public offices are not commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pro-Walker Electioneering Group Gets $1 Million Contribution From Wisconsin Couple

A tax-exempt nonprofit group used by the Republican Governors Association to collect unlimited contributions to spend on elections received the largest single contribution ever from Wisconsin – $1 million from a Milwaukee-area couple.

The contribution to the association’s 527 group was made March 7 by Mike and Mary Sue Shannon. The group’s report filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service identifies Mike Shannon as a managing partner of KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in travel and leisure businesses, and Mary Sue as a homemaker.

Combined with a $500,000 contribution last March and another $25,000 in 2012, the Shannons join two other individuals, two union groups, a business and a trade organization from Wisconsin that have each made multiple contributions totaling more than $1 million to these unregulated fundraising and spending organizations since 2000.

The Republican Governors Association’s 527 group reported a total of $22.4 million in contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations and trade groups during the first three months of 2014, including $1.27 million from Wisconsin contributors. In addition to the Shannons, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce – another $1 million-plus donor to 527 groups – donated $256,250, followed by Bill Johnson Jr., a Hayward timber company owner, at $6,250, Johnson Controls in Milwaukee at $5,556 and Sheboygan businessman Terry Kohler, a longtime supporter of Republican candidates and conservatives causes, at $5,000.  Johnson Controls and Kohler have each made multiple contributions totaling more than $1 million to 527 groups.

Contributions to the Republican Governors Association paid for three television ads since February that attacked Republican Governor Scott Walker’s likely Democratic opponent, businesswoman Mary Burke. Before this year, the group had spent an estimated $16.4 million in Wisconsin on independent expenditures and phony issue ads in three elections for governor since 2006, and the bulk of it was spent in the 2010 general and 2012 recall elections to support Walker. The association ranks among the top groups in spending on outside electioneering activities in Wisconsin.

The Republican group’s counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association, reported $11.7 million in special interest contributions during the first quarter of 2014, including $14,112 from Wisconsin contributors. The Wisconsin cash came from Johnson Controls at $11,112 and eight individuals who gave a few hundred dollars each.

The Democratic Governors Association reported direct spending of only about $36,000 during the 2012 recall against Walker, but it contributed more than $4.3 million since 2006 to other Democratic groups to help pay for their electioneering activities.

Friday, April 04, 2014

A Time For New Beginnings

While I believe is time both for me personally and for the organization to transition to new leadership at the Democracy Campaign, I want no one to mistakenly conclude that I am retiring or stepping away from civic life and the fight for democracy. My movement building is going to take a new form after the end of this year, but I will most definitely be in the construction business.

The Democracy Campaign is an absolutely invaluable group that I love dearly. It is my fervent hope that you will continue to care about and support the incredibly important work of following the money in politics, speaking truth to power and working for reforms aimed at making people matter more than all that money.

After 15 years of doing this work as WDC's director, I have reached the conclusion that there is a threat to democracy even greater than scandalous campaign financing, voter suppression, voter apathy, consolidation of media ownership, partisan gerrymandering or any of the other cancers that are growing in the body of American democracy. The greatest threat of all is the sense of powerlessness and the feelings of resignation that afflict so many of us.

I am still sorting through how best to apply my experiences and my energies to promote citizen empowerment. But what I do know is that there is a void that needs filling. We need to somehow find a way to house the politically homeless, reform political parties that are failing us, and get common citizens back into the driver's seat of an actual democracy.

Twenty years ago, there was a void that needed filling. Money was starting to play a greater and greater role in Wisconsin's elections, but there was no practical way of tracking that money. To see who was giving to whom, you literally had to visit the old state Elections Board office and paw through thousands of pages of paper reports, looking for the proverbial needles in haystacks. A few of us wondered if we could put the power of this new thing called the Internet to use and build a database of political donations that anyone could see online free of charge. We started the Democracy Campaign from scratch to fill that void. We asked people to support and invest in this entrepreneurial enterprise. Today the Democracy Campaign is a fixture on the political scene in Wisconsin and an indispensable institution. I am certain someone more able than me can be found to lead WDC to even greater heights.

As for me, I am feeling that entrepreneurial itch again. There is a void that needs filling.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seniors Show Dramatic Shift In Partisan Support

A recent Gallup poll that shows older Americans dramatically shifted their political support from Democrats to Republicans supports a trend the Democracy Campaign has seen involving campaign contributions by retirees. 

The Gallup poll showed Americans aged 65 and older moved from reliably Democratic supporters to Republicans supporters between 1992 and 2012.  The Gallup story cites race as a primary factor because older Americans are predominantly non-Hispanic whites while younger age groups of Americans are more racially diverse and tend to support Democrats.

Whatever the reason for the shift, Gallup's contention that yesterday's Democrats support today's Republicans jibes with a Democracy Campaign finding in 2011.  A review of campaign contributions from retirees to candidates for governor and the legislature from 1993 through 2010 showed parity between Republican and Democratic candidates early on, and then a sharp shift to Republican candidates since the 2006 election cycle.

An updated Democracy Campaign analysis of large campaign contributions - those who contributed $100 or more in a year - from retirees by decade found this:

Retirees contributed about $1.5 million to Republican candidates and $1.2 million to Democrats between 1993 and 2002.   But from 2003 to 2012 retiree contributions jumped to $10.4 million to Republicans compared to $4.5 million to Democratic candidates for statewide office and the legislature.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Eisenga Contributed To Pro-Walker Electioneering Group

A wealthy Wisconsin donor contributed $6,250 to an outside electioneering group that supports Republican Governor Scott Walker around the time the contributor contacted the governor and sought to change the state's child support laws in his favor.

The contributor, Michael Eisenga who is president of American Lending Solutions in Columbus, was among 19 donors who contributed a total of $1 million in 2013 to the Republican Governors Association's 527 group.  The RGA's state political action committee recently sponsored its third television ad slamming Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke in her bid to defeat Walker in the 2014 fall elections.

Eisenga's first-ever contribution to the group September 10 came in between two direct contributions totaling $9,500 to Walker last March and December.  In addition to the direct contributions to Walker, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice recently reported Eisenga contacted the governor last fall about changing the law and sent Walker an article about an appeals court ruling on Eisenga's divorce and child support payments.

But legislation to do just that by GOP Representative Joel Kleefisch of Ocononomoc was pulled after media reports - here and here - detailed Eisenga's role in writing the bill.

Campaign finance records show Eisenga has contributed $43,625 since 2001 - all to Republican candidates for statewide and legislative offices, including $19,500 to Walker and $10,000 to Kleefisch and his wife, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.

It also was reported that Eisenga’s former wife claims political donations were made in her name without her knowledge or consent. If true, the contributions would be illegal.

Other media reports said Eisenga’s company was the largest violator of the state’s “no call” list, soliciting more than a million individuals on the list. Eisenga also managed to put his children on BadgerCare, the state health care program intended for low-income families, despite a net worth estimated at between $20 million and $30 million.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Hiding Political Adultery

Elected officials are supposed to be faithful to the people.

Instead, many if not most of them are cheating on us. They are carrying on an affair with wealthy political donors, special interest groups and the lobbyists who represent them. They shower gifts on these mistresses, all the while neglecting the wishes and needs of the people they vowed to serve.

Like conventional philanderers, political adulterers go to great lengths to cover up their infidelity. Here in Wisconsin, the majority leader in the state Senate is now proposing to cement in state law a loophole allowing special interests and lobbying groups to conceal from the public who supplies the money they use to influence elections. The Senate's second-in-command, the assistant majority leader, has been pushing another scheme to blind the public to the financial interests of nearly all political donors.

Meanwhile, they are doubling down on the hanky panky. Literally. The Assembly already voted on a bipartisan basis to approve legislation that would double Wisconsin's limits on political donations. Senators are hoping no one will notice as they continue to flirt with the idea of ratifying the Assembly's action and sending it along to the governor for his signature. The Senate majority leader also wants lobbyists to be able to hand out checks year-round.

Take one step outside the Capitol and you find people of every political stripe in agreement that there is too much money in politics. Go inside the Capitol, and there is a bipartisan consensus that there's not enough.

Most people may be unaware that in 2012 a grand total of 243 donors – including 149 from out of state – reached Wisconsin’s $10,000 annual limit on campaign contributions. That tiny group of donors whose ability to influence lawmakers would be doubled is equal to four one-thousandth of 1% of Wisconsin’s population. But most voters are instinctively aware that their elected representatives are sneaking around on them. They have a sixth sense for adultery.

For their part, the politicians know they are betraying our trust and obviously fear having their infidelity exposed. Otherwise they would not be trying so hard to keep their affairs a secret.

They are fooling themselves. Their illicit activity is an open secret. Voters can tell when they are being two-timed.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chaos On Bulls**t Molehill

Governor Scott Walker insisted for the longest time that he had zero tolerance for government employees doing campaign work while on the job, before the court-ordered release of more than 27,000 emails proved that claim false. The governor also repeatedly said he had no idea there was a secret email system in his county executive's office, until the emails showed he was prevaricating about that too.

Just the other day Walker said there is no secret email system in the governor's office like the one he had in Milwaukee County. Veteran journalist Bruce Murphy quickly cast doubt on that claim. Murphy has a source who was a close observer of the governor’s staff in the Capitol and who attended numerous meetings with them. The source told Murphy there was a system that sure looked like it was designed to enable staff to do political work on government time and evade public disclosure of such campaigning by using personal laptops and gmail accounts.

Now the governor's just refusing to answer any more questions. All of this is old news, he says.

To the national pundits and talking heads in D.C., all of this is definitely news but none of it is apparently sexy enough. In a time when they've grown so used to encountering what Jon Stewart calls "Bullshit Mountain" on the other side of the Potomac, apparently they are having a hard time seeing this whole Walker affair as anything more than a Bullshit Molehill.

It's this kind of thing that prompted the late politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan to coin the phrase "defining deviancy down" to describe the tendency of societies to respond to destructive behaviors by lowering standards for what is permissible.

Not only are ethical standards in Wisconsin politics going the way of temperatures in the polar vortex, but now deviancy is in the eye of the beholder. Mountain or molehill, sexy or not, all those emails inspired the Beloit Daily News to observe "here’s how partisans view these things. If the guy on the other side does something like this, it’s a raging scandal and the rascal should be drummed out of office. But if the guy at the center of the mess is your guy, then your guy is a blameless victim of biased media and the evil opposition."

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Walker Accepted Bulk Of Individual Campaign Cash From Big Donors

Republican Governor Scott Walker accepted more than half of his $8.38 million in individual contributions in 2013 from well-heeled donors who gave $1,000 or more, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

The Democracy Campaign reviewed Walker’s 2013 contributions after his campaign boasted that 75 percent of the contributions were from donors who gave $50 or less. The Walker campaign’s claim and countless others like it by candidates over the years is often made to argue a candidate has strong grassroots support from average voters. But those claims skirt the more important question about where candidates get most of their money – big donors or small donors.

Here’s what the numbers from Walker’s campaign finance reports for 2013 revealed:

 The governor received $4.3 million from contributions of $1,000 or more – that’s 51 percent of his $8.38 million in total individual campaign contributions. And many of those $1,000-plus contributions – about $2.4 million – came from contributors outside Wisconsin;

 The governor accepted $2.6 million in contributions of $5,000 or more. That’s 31 percent of Walker’s total individual contributions, and most of that money – about $1.7 million – came from outside Wisconsin.

All told, the governor’s total haul from outside Wisconsin was about $4.4 million, or 54 percent of his total individual contributions in 2013. Walker’s out-of-state fundraising dipped a bit from the margin during his 2012 recall election when roughly two-thirds of the $37 million he raised came from outside Wisconsin. The decline in out-of-state contributions was because state fundraising rules during his recall allowed Walker to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, rather than the normal $10,000 per person.

Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke received $866,931 in individual contributions of $1,000 or more – about 68 percent of her $1.27 million in total individual contributions excluding her $429,730 self-contribution. Burke accepted $578,850 in contributions of $5,000 or more – about 46 percent of her individual donations, minus her self-contribution.

Burke’s campaign finance report also showed she received the bulk of her donations in 2013 from Wisconsin contributors. About $1.09 million, or 86 percent of her individual contributions, came from Wisconsin contributors and $180,274 came from out-of-state donors. She received $124,000 in out-of-state individual contributions of $1,000 or more – about 10 percent of the $1.27 million in individual contributions, and $105,000 in contributions of $5,000 or more – about 8 percent of her individual donations.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

'From The Prolific Womb Of Governmental Injustice'

Talk about history repeating itself....

In 1892, common folk united in the belief that the Democrats and Republicans were controlled by bankers, landowners and elites hostile to the needs of the small farmer gathered in St. Louis and later in Omaha to frame a populist answer. A Minnesotan named Ignatius Donnelly captured the mood of the moment, writing "we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress.... The people are demoralized; The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished.... The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Van Hollen's Rea$on$ To Bless Land Sales To Foreigners

A legal opinion on whether the state's 127-year-old restriction on foreign land ownership can still be enforced poses a conflict of interest for Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and could reward one of his largest special interest supporters depending on his decision.

A legal opinion nixing the law would serve the real estate industry, a powerful special interest that stands to benefit from increased land sales, but cloaks its support for such a move by pitching the ban's demise as pro-jobs and pro-economic development.  Since 2006 when Van Hollen was elected the real estate industry has contributed $209,965 in large individual and political action committee contributions to his campaigns.  The real estate industry is Van Hollen's second largest special interest supporter, accounting for 10 percent of the $2.21 million in special interest campaign cash he has accepted. 

An opinion that nixes the ban could also directly benefit Smithfield Foods, a giant U.S. pork producer with operations in Wisconsin that was purchased last fall by a Chinese company.  Van Hollen also  accepted campaign contributions from Smithfield general counsel James Nellen in 2005 and 2009 totaling $450.

A report by Reuters last year when the Smithfield deal was in the works noted foreign land ownership restrictions in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states could affect Smithfield's operations if the deal was approved.  Some legal experts contend federal laws and international trade agreements may trump the state land restrictions, but others say these laws in Wisconsin and elsewhere could affect the company's business or draw lengthy legal challenges.

The effort to lift foreign land ownership restrictions was resurrected earlier this month when the Assembly Committee on Organization voted to seek Van Hollen's opinion on the law.  The committee action follows a failed effort by Republican Governor Scott Walker to lift the cap in his 2013-15 state budget.  No one was certain at the time - like now - why the proposal was pushed or who it benefits.  Rumblings then suggested it would help out-of-state mining interests seeking to dig a massive open-pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.  In the event Gogebic Taconite wanted out of the project it could sell its stake to a foreign interest hungry for steel production, like China.

But both Republican and Democratic legislators opposed the measure last year because of strong opposition in agricultural and rural areas over wealthy foreign interests buying huge tracts of prized Wisconsin farmland and threatening the dominance of the state's premiere industry and pricing out future generations of farm families.

Another question as the proposal makes its second round might be to ask Assembly Republicans why they think these sentiments have changed.  

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Biggest Problem

I was honored to be asked to be the keynote speaker for Saturday night's dinner banquet at the Wisconsin Farmers Union convention in Wisconsin Rapids. After sharing some stories about my upbringing on the farm, I really only had two points I wanted to make to my audience.

The first was that money in politics is a huge problem for family farmers and for rural communities. It's a problem that causes most all of their other problems to be overlooked or ignored.

One of the things I heard about a lot at the convention was the brutal propane shortage that is reaching crisis proportions in rural parts of the state. With Wisconsin in the grips of the polar vortex, there are families out there who are having to go without heat in their homes because they either can't afford or can't get deliveries of propane to fuel their furnaces. Others are moving in with neighbors temporarily until the frigid temperatures subside. Yet you don't hear politicians talking about this, much less doing anything about it.

As I said in my speech on Saturday night and in a blog post last week, politicians don't talk about many serious challenges facing rural America and aren't working to solve rural problems because their big donors aren't experiencing these challenges and, as a result, aren't demanding that the politicians talk about them or try to solve them.

My second point was that the problem of money in politics, huge as it is, is not the biggest problem. An even bigger one is the obsolete and malfunctioning condition of America's two major political parties. Both are failing Wisconsin and failing the nation. As much as family farmers – and the rest of us – need campaign finance reform, we all need political party reform even more.

Despite the fact that the need to remedy money's poisonous effects on politics and government might be about the only thing virtually all Americans can agree on, both parties are deaf to the public clamor. Neither party is acting according to the wishes of the people. Which leaves the vast majority of us, for all intents and purposes, politically homeless.

As I told the Farmers Union members, when I speak of the need for political party reform, I am not calling for the establishment of a third party. Smart reformers realize America has a two-party system. The goal should not be to have three parties, it should be having one that is worth a damn. One that owes its allegiance to the people and offers housing to the politically homeless.

As I said Saturday night, we are fast approaching a moment of truth. A vacuum has developed in America's political party structure, a void that must be filled because nature abhors vacuums and because democracy doesn't work without at least one party that represents the many and not just the money. This is a moment that cries out for political invention.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Many Signs Of Corruption

Sometimes political corruption comes right up and slaps you on the face.

Such was the case with the recent revelation that a state lawmaker granted a wealthy divorced developer an unusual and significant opportunity to provide input into the writing of legislation allowing high-income parents to substantially reduce their child support payments. The businessman happens to be a major donor to the Republican legislator and other GOP officials.

The effort to craft the bill to the donor's liking even left a legislative attorney helping to write the bill at a loss. "It's hard to fashion a general principle that will apply to only one situation," the drafting lawyer said.

Most people don't get that kind of attention and personalized service from an elected representative. But then most people don't make tens of thousands of dollars in political donations.

Most times, corruption is not that conspicuous. Most times, it presents itself much more subtly.

The corrupting influence of money in politics works its will at the Capitol every day in countless ways as it shapes the legislative agenda. It plays an insidious role in determining what lawmakers discuss and what they don't talk about, which bills get debated and which ones don't, what business is brought to a vote, and which bills become law.

Here's an illustration: Try to think of the last time the Legislature did something to address a major challenge unique to rural communities in Wisconsin. Try to name the rural issues that are on the Legislature's agenda for the upcoming session. Make a list of the rural issues on the Democrats' agenda. Now make one for the Republicans.

Those are some mighty short lists.

Rural people and rural problems get neglected at the Capitol for a reason. Politicians don't talk about rural issues and don't solve rural problems because they don't get many political donations from rural areas. As the Democracy Campaign's recent analysis of the communities in Wisconsin that produce the most campaign contributions showed, less than a quarter of the state's nearly 900 zip codes produce almost all of the political donations. On the color-coded map illustrating this finding, there are some red zips that strongly favor Republicans and a few blue ones that support the Democrats. But most of the map is colorless. Most parts of the state – especially the rural parts – generate little or no money for the politicians.

Elected officials always say campaign contributions have nothing to do with the decisions they make. Indeed, the legislator who authored the child support bill insisted the donations he got played no role in his decision to do the divorced businessman's bidding.

So again I ask: When is the last time Wisconsin lawmakers tackled a major problem plaguing rural communities?

I made this point in a recent interview, and at first the reporter asking the questions appeared stumped. Then he brought up the proposed legislation designed to clear the way for more mining of sand used in a process of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Think about that legislation. Local elected officials in western and northwestern Wisconsin, responding to concerns by the region's mostly rural residents, have approved numerous resolutions and local ordinances aimed at asserting their communities' right to oversee and regulate sand mining operations. Some have even voted to approve moratoriums stopping the activity altogether, at least for the time being.

State lawmakers marinated in money from a recent surge in political giving by sand mining interests from across the country fashioned a bill that seeks to preempt these local actions. The legislation strips away local control and puts the state in charge of oversight and regulation of sand mining. The hands of local officials would be tied. The ability of rural communities to determine their own fate when it comes to sand mining would be taken away.

Rural folks concerned that sand mining could harm air and water quality, lower their property values, create noise pollution and traffic congestion and damage their roads would be left with no say over these operations and no control over their own fate on the issue. They wouldn't even have a say over the use of dynamite for blasting at the mining sites in their own backyards.

The one time that comes readily to mind when state lawmakers showed an interest in addressing an issue of great importance to rural Wisconsin, and this is how they respond. Sometimes political corruption comes right up and slaps you on the face.