Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A crisis and an opportunity

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 28, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The Wisconsin budget crisis is behind us to the extent it isn’t ahead of us due to latent structural deficits. The governor can veto out some pork and whatever additions offend him, but it is fundamentally his baby.

As agonizing as recession politics are, which are characterized by the worst of all worlds--lower income and higher cost--they do offer opportunities to rethink and rearrange the status quo. The status quo one should remember is not an accident. Someone put it there. And those someones are mobilized to make sure it stays put. The most serious threat to our democracy, as the NY Times Bill Safire pointed out 31 years ago, is hardening of the arteries.

Among the things on my unfulfilled wish list are:

1. The icon of local control of schools when most of the funding comes from elsewhere should be addressed. The state is putting up most of the money. The state should run the system. Set up a Department of Education as a cabinet office, fold DPI into it, and start running K-12 as the state system the Constitution envisioned.

2. How about turning the property tax into a series of fees for services and assess it on every piece of property that gets those services? Fire protection, police protection, waste collection, roads, and other vital services go to churches, non-profits, hospitals, everyone. Everyone should pay.

3. K-12 and vocational and technical education costs which are paid in part or in full with property taxes could be picked up by the state which has access to the almost equally unpopular income tax or the most popular of an unpopular category, the sales tax.

4. Wisconsin is awash in governmental units. What is it that towns do except conduct elections? Which brings up the parallel point that we have a ridiculous number of election districts in Wisconsin. Is it time to eliminate towns?

What about counties in metro areas. Isn't it time for us to have metro districts that fold in the suburbs and the cities and villages that are really part of the greater inter-dependent metro system?

6. Is it not time to extend the sales tax to services to recognize, among other things, that ours is increasingly a service economy. There’s a good excuse lying around for putting a sales tax on legal fees, to take one service at random. The money this would raise could be used in part to pay for court elections. This would eliminate the unsavory practice of lawyers paying to elect judges, and would have the desirable side effect for lawyers of not having to make those contributions. It may be more of a cost transference than a tax increase. Win-win.

7. There are minor cost savings available as well. All the work that the Constitution drafters assigned to offices like the secretary of state and the state treasurer has been taken over by the Department of Administration. These offices can be eliminated, which would require amending the Constitution over the dead bodies of the traditionalists from both parties. How about simply not funding them, which wouldn't?

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friendly disagreements

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 21, 2009

By Bill Kraus

David Carley’s memorial service brought back most of the surviving relics of the 1960s and 1970s, including me.

My earliest association with Dave was in 1977. He and I co-chaired Martha Bablitch’s 1978 campaign for a seat on one of the newly created courts of appeals.

While we occasionally pitched in--if asked--with advice and reassurances, our main role was to bi-partisanize the candidate’s image and behavior. All judicial candidates who came to their campaigns with a partisan history knew it was necessary to cleanse their candidacy by a show of bi-partisanship.

This representation was considered particularly important for supreme and appeals court races. Former governor Pat Lucey and former Republican state party chairman Ody Fish, later replaced by former governor Lee Dreyfus, played the parts that David Carley and I were cast for in Martha’s campaign in several court campaigns.

What a concept. Sometime between then and now, however, the people running campaigns found de-partisanizing unnecessary.

That was bad. What was infinitely worse was that the talk broadcast media weighed in with their mandate that it was not enough for Democrats and Republicans to disagree with one another they had to dislike each other as well. The wedge-addicted mercenaries who were running campaigns wanted philosophical adversaries to be personal enemies.

The week of the Carley memorial I experienced another example of the politics of the past when Judge John Shabaz showed up at the Avenue Bar for lunch at the “has beens” table and exchanged pleasantries and reminiscences with a collection of former journalists and pols with whom he was at war during his entire political career.

Almost all the people at that table may have hated John’s politics. They liked the man. They admired his talent and tenacity. And vice versa.

Is it possible to get past--or rid of--the media zealots and the wedging mercenaries and regain our civility and mutual respect for the participants in the honorable trade of politics?

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

SEEDS of Discontent

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 14, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There were small stories in the Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee Magazine recently about an easily overlooked obituary.

The deceased is an idea called SEED (School for Educational Evolution and Development).

I was a witness to its Wisconsin birth a couple of years ago.

SEED was invented in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore a few years ago.

It is a boarding school which takes students at random from poverty-stricken and otherwise non-functioning areas in the city and gives them a boarding school opportunity.

The students come to school at 8 a.m. on Mondays and go back home at 8 p.m. on Fridays if there is a home to go to. If not, they stay at the school full time.

As you can imagine, this is not cheap. It costs something like $30,000 per student (more than three times the per-student costs in public schools) and a facility has to be built to house them as well.

The reasons the Milwaukee leaders who listened to a presentation about SEED greeted the idea more warmly than one would imagine is the results it was producing in the east. Almost 100 percent of the students finish high school. More than 80 percent go on to college, where they also succeed. And, best of all, many if not most of them return to the places they came from when they entered the SEED program where they become role models and leaders for the larger community.

All of a sudden $30,000 per student--which compares favorably with the cost of incarceration in Wisconsin--didn’t seem so expensive after all.

The Milwaukee audience whose members have been desperately seeking solutions to the cultural, educational, social problems of that city finally felt that they were seeing an idea that might work.

It was expensive. It would take a very long time to get to speed. It attracted the best and brightest and most eager teachers. It offered hope.

The gestation period did not go smoothly. The first entrepreneur to step forward stepped aside to pursue another opportunity and then went away. His successor picked up the pieces, but before he could put them back together all of the people and organizations who would have to come up with the money were much less affluent than they had been. Worse yet, the state, which was looking for this kind of a solution for its largest and troubled city, had fiscal troubles of its own.

There were also rumors that the teachers’ unions were not enthusiastic and perhaps there were dissidents from the policy, from the idea itself, but the immediate cause of death was money-starvation. Governor Jim Doyle called SEED a “wonderful thing” but unaffordable right now.

One of its enthusiasts says “the governor killed it.”

No matter. The governor, the economy, the expense, the city, whoever or whatever, the sad fact is that SEED is dead. The cancer for which it might have offered a cure is not. Mourn its passing.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Starving the beast

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 7, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There are some early signs that the new rules of the new "needs" economy, which is quickly and traumatically replacing the "wants" economy that we had all come to overindulge in, may extend to political donating and donations.

Advocacy organizations all seem to be hurting. This is hardly surprising because their contributors are no less immune to market shocks, housing realities, the precipitous drop in automobile industry driven jobs, and lots of trouble in discretionary market sectors generally.

Lobbyists and lobbying organizations are being asked to get along on less. Their clients may even decide that while their expertise and influence are needed, their role as bagmen is going to have to be curtailed.

This could spread.

A candidate is going to find it hard to convince a hard-pressed and less affluent constituency that he or she can't run a successful campaign without a multi-million dollar war chest which will be used to pay for an endless stream of evocative (as opposed to informative) television commercials and other annoyances like automated telephone appeals for money and/or votes.

Even the zealots with their emotional causes will find their appeals are not as effective when addressed to millionaires whose fortunes are impaired and to the rest of us who have hunkered down until and unless we get a bead on a suddenly unfathomable future. People are deciding that eating well or sending their kids to college is more important than whether gays get married, buying automatic weapons we can't afford, gaining icon status from icon-sized contributions, or any of the multitude of ideas large and small that we were willing to throw money at when money was a lot easier and more plentiful.

It may be wishful thinking, but the market may do what good reform ideas and worthy informers haven't been able to do.

The market seems to be saying no to the Hummer and McMansions.

Could lavishly endowed campaigns on issues and for and against candidates suffer the same fate?

The market as the ultimate reformer?

What an idea.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Incongruities and incongruities

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 31, 2009

By Bill Kraus

It is not surprising to hear the Republicans complain about the unfairness of the “liberal” press and their unfriendly-to-unfavorable coverage. It is a little surprising that the complainers don’t take a lesson from or seek the advice of the members of the party who get a fair shake.

It ain’t rocket science, guys.

Putting that aside, what is really incongruous is that the Republicans, the ancestral home of the political fat cats, think they are getting the short end when it comes to money, too.

Surprisingly, there may be some truth to this.

The GOP has always felt that the money that flows to Democrats from the negative check-off process available to unions of all stripes but particularly WEAC, the teachers’ politically powerful union, is an easier route to money and maybe even a richer lode than their one-check-at-a-time soliciting.

All attempts to outlaw this have fallen on deaf ears or worse. The contributions are penny ante and the members whose dues are clipped can opt out if they wish. So all the GOP can do is point with alarm and complain.

The GOP operatives have come late to the Internet’s charms as well. Howard Dean explored this avenue and Barack Obama turned it into a 4-lane highway for money. If any Republican finance committee is hitting this jackpot I’m not aware of it.

It is worth noting that the Dems have also rounded up more millionaires than the fat cats have. Nobody on the GOP side in Wisconsin comes close to Herb Kohl, for example, and nationally George Soros and his ilk are red meat for the Dems and the Dem causes.

Let’s concede that it may be incongruous, but it does not seem to be a fanciful lament.

The real incongruity though is that, despite this, the organized and elected Republicans can be counted on to oppose all those reform measures proposed by all the do gooders, not to mention some proposals from their own cohorts as well, which are designed to level the economic playing field.

Spending limits would kill the overkill of negative checking off and Internet prowess.

Contribution limits would cut Herb Kohl and his peers down to size, fiscally anyway.

Best of all, the thirt-party party crashers would be (a) exposed and (b) subject to spending matches which would, in effect, make them indirect contributors to their intended Republican victims.

Goodbye, George Soros. Farewell, Bill Christofferson and the Greater Wisconsin Committee. Hello, parity.

And the Republican response? No thanks.

Now that’s incongruous.

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