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.