Sunday, February 22, 2009

Could be worse

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 22, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Members of the new Assembly leadership teams visited with the eclectic, outspoken, bipartisan Common Cause board of directors last week. We learned a few things. We hope they did as well.

Tom Nelson, the Assembly majority leader, gave deserved credit to the Speaker, Mike Sheridan, for the rule that fundamentally shuts down 99 fundraising operations while the budget bill is working its tortuous way to passage and signature. He acknowledged that this was a small step towards Wisconsin’s pristine past. He also pointed out that a reason it happened was that it could be and was done unilaterally and expeditiously.

The hope, of course, is that this is the first step in a journey of 1,0 00 miles to steal a JFK aphorism. Representative Nelson gave us no reason not to think it was.

In his appearance later in the meeting, Jeff Smith, the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, laid out his agenda. It included everything on the reform wish list and offered further assurance that it might be a pretty good year for reform ideas.

Without discouraging him, the board members asked about the reality of passing anything, no matter how worthy, that cost money in these dire economic times.

The BIG reform bill is propelled by doses of tax money that would go directly to candidates’ campaigns. More importantly, it includes the promise of additional tax money to discourage big spending by the third-party organizations and interests and millionaires who have been hijacking campaigns pretty willy nilly lately.

This has been a boon to the hired guns who are running these organizations and the TV stations that are the beneficiaries of their ad campaigns and a bane to the overwhelmed candidates who are their victims or, in the millionaires’ cases, their opponents.

The less expensive bill that would bring public money to judicial elections has a better chance because it’s more popular with voters who question the practice of lawyers giving money to judges. The fact that it wouldn’t go into effect this year when funding the state budget occupies positions 1 through 10 on the legislative agenda also improves its chances.=C 2

The transparency bill is even cheaper. It costs nothing, with the possible exception of a Supreme Court appeal. It would require everyone who wants to participate in political campaigns to play by the same rules. Candidates and parties have to tell everyone where they get their money. They also have to loudly proclaim their approval of the advertising being broadcast on their behalf. Third-party campaigns currently do neither of the above.

The fact that disclosure has also been the one and only reform idea that has always had the full support of the now minority Republicans put this in the slam dunk category.

“Not so fast,” said Mark Gottleib, the Assembly assistant minority leader, when he spoke to the board. The reasons for this reversal were not articulated but were surely signaled by former Speaker Heubsch’s failure to advance the disclosure bill passed by the Senate in the last Legislature, which was also never satisfactorily explained.

Free speech concerns have been expanded to require full protection of anonymous free speech which seems to have bumped this idea from the Assembly Republicans’ “will do” list. This is disheartening, but not fatal inasmuch as the disclosure-prone Democrats, whose funders are either well known or not afraid to be, are now in control of both houses.

This is not a proviso-free situation, however. The governor, who has always been a friend of anything-goes-free-for-all campaigning, is still in the mix. So far he has chosen not to bring the subject of reform up in two major speeches to the people and the Legislature; not a good sign. Can he be counted on to introduce, urge, or even sign what Representative Smith and his committee might give birth to? Don’t bet the farm.

Putting the minority-but-vocal Republicans and their tacit ally in the governor’s office aside, the pressure for campaign fairness legislation in Wisconsin, with economic restraints, seems to be higher than usual. Not stratospheric but not bad.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Good people and good government

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 15, 2009
By Bill Kraus

In this period when everyone is turning to and away from governments, when we are getting conflicting advice to do more, do less, or something in between, what comes to mind is the thought that what we really want is a government that works.

One of the special people who gave us that in Wisconsin for the last 50 years or so died last week.

His name was Wayne McGown.

He and serveral contemporaries like Paul Brown and Roger Schrantz, to name just two of many, served anywhere and everywhere in state government honorably and lengthily.

My first encounter in Madison with Wayne was when he was serving as Deputy Secretary of the embryonic Department of Administration for Warren Knowles. He became secretary of the department for a short while near the end of the Knowles era but quickly and happily rejoined his band of brothers who keep the Wisconsin government working.

The next time our paths crossed was when the hordes of Huns came to Madison from Stevens Point and other faraway places in 1978.

Despite our bravado we all secretly felt a twinge of doubt when we wondered if the place might come to a stop.

It wouldn’t. Wayne, Paul, Roger et al would keep the wheels turning.

They were, variously, working in jobs at places like the Department of Transportation, the Building Commission, and the University.

Wayne’s career culminated with a stunning achievement. He created, built, and managed Research Park, which promises to be the seed corn of Wisconsin’s economic future.

Due to a shortage of reporters in general and reporters with institutional memory in particular, Wayne’s passing and the “government that works” he helped deliver was not given its journalistic due.

I’m sure there is a succeeding generation of operatives quietly and efficiently at work today in state government.

Mourn the passing of a giant among you, and keep up the good--if under-noted and under-appreciated--work you do every day.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Blogojevich Nation

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 8, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Someone once said that you can find something good to say about anyone. Blagojevich then is a good bad example.

Outlandish? Yes. Unique? Hardly.

There are a lot of reasons Blagojevich did what he did (no compelling ones about for how he did it). The most important one is the need for money to run campaigns and keep the power that money buys made him do it.

As campaigns became more expensive, more entrepreneurial, more the playgrounds for the well endowed candidates and the third-party zealots and single issue groups incumbents began to use the powers of incumbency to accumulate the large amounts of money they felt they needed to perpetuate their favored status.

It is called “pay to play.”

Money has always bought access to power. Pay to play money buys action.

The legislative leaders set up a series of toll booths. Supplicants pay a toll to get a bill introduced, another to get it to committee, then out of committee and to the floor for a favorable floor vote and shipment to the executive office where the Blagojeviches of the world have an opportunity to extract their pound of flesh.

When this costly journey was exposed in Wisconsin, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala went to jail, and Republican Speaker of the Assembly Scott Jensen started his endless journey through the legal system on the way to who knows what fate awaits him.

Two Illinois governors and one from Connecticut have been deposed or jailed as well when ambitious prosecutors followed the money trail to the executive offices in those states.

Bill Richardson’s journey to the cabinet was derailed because of suspicions that a form of Blagoization has spread to New Mexico.

Increasingly legislators and executives here and elsewhere have suffered the embarrassment of having to answer questions raised by the annoying do-gooder organizations and the dwindling but really annoying few remaining investigative journalists.

Is something being bought here? they ask.

Those who ignore or brush the question aside have to deal with the political version of a long ago story about a sports writer whose editor told him not to accept any largesse from a team he was covering.

“Do you think I can be bought for a 5th of whiskey?” he asked the editor.

“I’m not sure,” the editor replied, “but I do know that they didn’t give it to you because they thought you were thirsty.”

Blago-ism moves this Q-and-A to front and center in politics and raises the question whether those in power will realize--even if they dodge investigation and prosecution--that play-to-pay puts their good names and the good name of the trade they practice at serious risk.

It is easy to blame the system. It is hard to dodge the fact that the people who are victimized by or blaming the system have the power to change it and the behavior it evokes.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Yours and ours

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 1, 2009

By Bill Kraus

This is addressed to the incoming class of executives of quasi-public companies: banks, insurance companies, investment banks, automobile manufacturers, and whoever else has a brand new, large stockholder who is located in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the fishbowl.

Up to now your acquaintance with the press, unless you have had the misfortune of being caught with your corporate pants down, has consisted of issuing press releases and saying “no comment” in those rare instances when someone asked a nosy, penetrating question.

No longer.

You are now a beat.

The good news is that the press, which now feels it has a right to know everything about what you do and how you do whatever it is you do, is woefully understaffed.

The bad news is that reporters' instincts for the capillary is still alive and well. And now they feel they should have complete access to behavioral conduct as well as fiscal results.

Up to now you have been very forthcoming about your results. Actually, corporations’ reports are a lot more complete and confessional than those of public institutions. Quarterly and annual reports (called 10Qs and 10Ks) go to great lengths to tell their readers what has gone and could go wrong, and about all the risks that your enterprise faces. Government reports (called State of the State and State of the Nation addresses) are less about how bad things are going than how well they will go in the future.

The potentially embarrassing stuff was pretty much out of view.

Reporters are no longer confined to reading and reporting on the results. They really think they should be invited to your board meetings, like they are in the public sector. It hasn’t come to that. Yet.

In the meantime they are reporting and commenting on things that were pretty much out of bounds before, like politicians sex lives used to be. All this changed when you took OUR money.

How the heads of the auto companies got to Washington was their business. No longer. Now everyone knows they came on their corporate jets, and that they shouldn’t have.

Citicorp has cancelled an order for a new jet and is being asked whether putting its name on the New York Mets' new stadium is an appropriate use of OUR money.

And it doesn’t stop with the few remaining straight reporters. It has spread to the comic sector. Jay Leno said the other night that the Obama inauguration was the most expensive celebration since the last corporate retreat the executives of the AIG company attended on OUR money.

And it isn’t going to let up.

Those of us who have spent time in both sectors have long known that the big difference between the private and public sectors is that the public sector is public in every sense of the word, and that that fact influences behavior.

Welcome to the fishbowl boys and girls.