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.