Thursday, April 22, 2010

Keeping track of your money

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 2, 2010

By Bill Kraus

A largely unnoticed and unremarked upon drift of power has been taking place within our democratic system for more than 30 years.

It is mostly a result of the unintended consequences of the Watergate reforms. These reforms were meant to punish the political parties for multiple abuses of the powers that had accrued to them over time.

The punishment exceeded the crime by largely destroying the parties’ longstanding ability to recruit and slate candidates and to fund and manage their campaigns.

The reform took away the parties' near monopoly on funding campaigns, and all the other roles that attended that one went away as well.

The money got loose.

This meant that the people and organizations who had been funding candidacies indirectly could now fund them directly.

An era of entrepreneurial candidacies began and was quickly squelched by the legislative leaders whose ability to control their caucuses was eroded by the candidates’ new freedoms.

The leaders set up legislative campaign committees and re-funneled the money flow so it got to the candidates through them because they controlled these organizations instead of getting to the candidates directly. They became what the parties had been before they went too far. They became the rainmakers.

This restored and enhanced their power. Once they got their hands on the money they took over the responsibility to recruit and slate, fund and manage from the displaced and weakened parties.

Like most people and organizations who are given too much power they overplayed their hands. Toll booths were set up. State employees’ jobs were expanded to include campaign work. And jail sentences followed. But, oddly enough, the power which had fallen into the laps of the legislative leaders pretty much stayed there. The parties did not resurrect. The crucial flow of the serious campaign money was not redirected away from the leadership offices.

So now we have a new set of legislative leaders who have pretty much the same power those they replaced had and misused.

Proof of malfeasance is not offered, but a weakened and understaffed print press corps has raised questions about why some legislation disappeared into wastebaskets in the leadership offices and other less or equally worthy proposals got what can only be described as favorable treatment in the chaotic last days of the legislative session.

These stories are a valuable reminder that the most desirable side effect of having a vigorous free press is that its practitioners provide the great public service of seeing that those with power are turning square corners.

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Dying by the numbers

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 26, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Senate Bill 43 died quietly last week. If an important newspaper ran a news story about its demise, it didn’t come to my attention.

The bill was known by those familiar with it as “the disclosure bill.” What it says in essence is that if you want to participate in political campaigns with advertisements for or against a candidate, you must tell everyone where you got the money to pay for these advertisements.

The state Senate passed it with a substantial bi-partisan majority. It didn’t survive a trip to the Assembly. It died in the Speaker’s office.

A lot of important political players showed up for the funeral. Some came to mourn the passing and others came to make sure it was really dead.

The mourners were:

1. The Supreme Court, which urged disclosure as the real and really constitutional reform when it issued the decision on the Citizens United case which allowed corporations and unions to do the kind of campaign advertising heretofore prohibited.

2. The GOP stalwarts who have always been leery of spending limits, public funding, and other regulatory palliatives and whose war cry was, is, and always will be Disclosure is the Answer. The death of disclosure means they lose the chance to prove their assertion that this is the ideal and only required campaign reform.

3. Candidates who come under attack from single-issue (usually) zealots with money who have become eminent to dominant participants in political campaigns recently.

4. The press, which supports political openness on its own behalf and, with the notable exception of many editorial-page editors, pretty much ignored this companion political openness effort which would have shown who the participants in campaigns really are.

5. Fairness advocates, who pointed out that candidates must reveal where they get the money they spend to promote their candidacies, but their non-candidate enemies and opponents are under no such obligation.

The “Were glad you’re dead crowd” included:

1. Free-market fanatics, including our current governor, who kind of like the high-spending, raucous, media-driven, corruption inducing system.

2. Free-speech protectors who consider anonymity a necessary part of that guarantee. They do not think free speech is really free unless it can be done without attribution, so it is free from backlash by those who are offended by it.

3. Organizations whose members’ commercial interests are protected from the consequences of their spending on their political interests.

4. Anyone who wants to put their money where their mouth isn’t. Strange bedfellows of all kinds. Right-To-Life organizations must have a lot of them judging from their vehemence about keeping the identity of their funders secret. Collateral partisan groups like Club for Growth and The Greater Wisconsin Committee also fall into this category.

5. Candidates who expect to be rewarded for letting the foregoing beneficiaries of non-disclosure maintain their anonymity in the expectation that those who they protect from this unwanted publicity will lavish praise and money on them.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The next governor's dilemmas

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 18, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Dilemma #1

When the state needs more revenues, the Democrats turn to the income tax for either a straight increase in the tax rate or a temporary surtax if the need looks like it is going to be temporary. The Republicans favor increases in the sales tax rate.

Since the onset of the taxophobia epidemic, this stalemate has been resolved by doing little or nothing about the big two revenue sources and sort of letting the property tax take the fall.

The reasoning(s) are: the sales tax is regressive, and the income tax is a deterrent to business executives and rich people who want to move here or stay here.

The flaw of letting nature take its course is that property taxes are regressive deterrents as well. The appeal to legislators and governors is that local governments assess them; they are somebody else’s problem.

Dilemma #2

Property tax dependency is really driven by the fact that it is used to fund K12 and technical college education. Education is constitutionally a state responsibility.

The most effective route to more tolerable property taxes is by expanding and increasing the sales tax and/or raising the income tax to pick up this state responsibility.

Dilemma #3

The biggest reason the state needs more revenues is we can’t cut our way to retaining our reputation as an education state without a new economy to buttress the traditional sources of jobs and money which are stagnating or faltering or both.

There are things that governments can do to build a new economy, but they are limited by resources and skills. What governments know how to do is welfare and infrastructure. Both can be used to create jobs, but both mostly require more tax revenues to do so. And, worse yet, the jobs they create are old economy jobs not new economy jobs.

There are, however, things governments can do to support and inspire and even help people in the private sector who do know how to create new economy jobs. The trouble is that this is high-risk stuff. A baseball analogy is apt. Even the best job creators bat something like .300, and that .300 is composed mostly of singles. Home runs are scarce.

Candidates are more likely to prefer other solutions. Lower taxes are said to be helpful in creating this new economy, and a friendly regulatory climate also has its adherents. Less spending without getting too specific about “on what?” gets a lot of lip service as well. The real stimulus, though, is something a revenue-short government doesn’t have much of: capital investment money.

Dilemma #4

The members of the Legislature who will have to approve whatever proposals the governor suggests to deal with these dilemmas are risk averse and occupy safe seats. This reduces appetites for anything adventuresome that might not work, disturb the status quo inordinately, or feed the anti-incumbent forces already in motion.

Dispassionate redistricting, anyone? It may be a necessary precursor to dilemma dismemberment.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mine Tragedy Should Prompt Call for Public Financing of Campaigns

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 15, 2010

By Roger Utnehmer

The West Virginia mine tragedy that recently claimed 25 lives is prompting calls for new safety rules and a review of our country’s dependence on coal. What the explosion absolutely should prompt is a call for campaign finance reform.

The CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the mine in which the fatalities occurred, has bribed and bought his way around West Virginia politics for years. Don Blankenship donated $3 million to a candidate for the state supreme court who then provided the one-vote margin to over-rule a $50 million judgment against Massey Energy. The contribution was so offensive the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that it created an appearance of bias.

In 2006 Blankenship spent millions of dollars of his own money attempting to defeat legislators who supported worker safety and environmental regulations he opposed. Last year a subsidiary of Massey Energy spend $5.8 million trying to influence regulation of the coal industry.

Campaign contributions on the scale typical of Ron Blankenship are nothing but sanitized corruption. When a single candidate for a seat on the court takes $3 million from one individual and then votes to save him $50 million in damages public confidence is severely sacrificed.

Don Blankenship has engaged in a pattern of legalized bribery. Unfortunately, that same corruption is common in judicial and legislative races throughout America. The only solution is to crowd out the special interest money and replace the bribery and corruption with public financing of campaigns.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. I’m Roger Utnehmer.

Roger Utnehmer is President and CEO of, and a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Order in the court

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 14, 2010

By Bill Kraus

After an interlude of unseemliness, high-level judicial elections in Wisconsin seem to have come home to our longstanding tradition of civility and non-partisanship. To at least some extent this is a reaction to the revulsion at the slide into the partisan election mode which features mass media attacks, big money campaigns, and advertising that is designed to deceive more than to inform.

Although the coat holders in the press decry it, judicial elections are largely beauty contests where the voters get to choose the most qualified and fairest candidates. They are not and should not be slugfests on issues and wildly exaggerated promises.

Candidates usually come to the contest with some partisan baggage. So the first thing they do is put names at the top of their campaign letterheads of prominent partisans from both parties. The ideal is to be regarded as “non-partisan.” The reality is in most cases to achieve the reputation of being or aspiring to being “bi-partisan.”

The campaigns seek endorsements from prominent members of the community like judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials who are chosen to represent as many partisan sectors as possible and establish bi-partisanship as well. This is probably impossible, but worth trying.

The stump speeches and campaign ads talk about credentials and readiness to perform the job without making any pre-judging promises of any kind on any subject or issue or person that may appear before them if elected. Partisan elections seek people with common interests. Judicial elections seek people who will make disinterested rulings on the facts and the law, who will come to the job with an open mind.

A popular objection to judicial elections is when they are held and the numbers of voters they attract. They are held in the spring (which means campaigning in the winter) and they don’t attract flies. The commonly recommended remedy is to move them to the fall when the turnout is higher. This would mix two disparate kinds of elections, and it overlooks the desirable side effects of low-turnout elections.

Low-turnout elections can be shoe leather and word-of-mouth based, where media is used for name identification and resume presentation not for scorched-earth attacks on opponents and implied promises to be strong on crime (does anybody ever claim to be weak on crime?) and to construe the law “strictly,” whatever that means. This kind of person-to-person campaigning tends to be polite and appeals to the intellect instead of the emotions.

Another heartwarming development is that the recent winners have not been tempted to follow Judge Barbara Crabb’s wrongheaded suggestion that it is acceptable to become overtly partisan. This is good. Overt partisans are offering the kind of bias that attracts partisans and that is unwanted and unwarranted from the judiciary.

Overt partisan candidates also do a dumb electoral thing. The non-partisan elections do not appeal to the yellow dogs of either persuasion perhaps, but to ignore the partisan tendencies of the more independent voters who make up this limited turnout is to limit your appeal. Half the voters lean one way or the other. So any candidate who makes an appeal to a Democrat or Republican constituency turns off at least half of the potential voters.

I, for one, accept the fact that an elected judiciary is in the genes of Wisconsin voters, like an elected judiciary for other reasons as well, and applaud the fact that those who have sought judicial office recently have done so in the judicial equivalent of going door to door, one-vote-at-a-time personal campaigning.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Where have all the candidates gone?

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 4, 2010

By Bill Kraus

In 2010 there is an open seat in the governor’s office.

In the state Legislature there are 132 incumbent office holders, none of whom are candidates for governor.

The Legislature a generation ago was a virtual spawning ground, a stepping stone, for politicians ambitious for higher office.

If there was a complaint about the make up of those long-ago bodies, it was that the members were climbing over each other in search of shots at the few higher offices that were available for which they could run.

A fast count reveals that this generation-ago group of state legislators produced eight members of the U.S. Congress, one U.S. Senator, three governors, two Supreme Court justices, one ambassador, and uncounted mayors and county executives.

The current crop, if 2010 is an indication, will produce none of the above.

For lack of ambition if nothing else.

What happened?

For one thing, the recruiting, slating, and electing of the talent pool that produced large numbers of the restlessly ambitious was taken over from the diminished-role-parties by the enhanced-role legislative leaders. The party leaders wanted the best and the brightest with the most promising prospects for higher office.

What the legislative leaders wanted were people who could win legislative elections and, once that was accomplished, would obey orders.

The jobs themselves changed as well. A generation ago most of the members of the Legislature had other lives, other jobs. The legislative pay scale was set on the assumption that the members would be part-timers. Most were. For most, it was not a career destination. It was a temporary trip into public service for some, a first or second step up the ladder of political power for the rest.

Many state legislators came from service on county boards, city councils, and school boards where they got their first appetizer-sized taste of political power and developed an appetite for a larger entree-sized serving. One interesting exception to this progression was the several members of the Milwaukee caucus whose ambition was to use the Legislature as a stepping stone to more lucrative and long-term careers on that area’s county board or city council.

When it became economically possible to live well as a full-time legislator and when self-serving redistricting made perpetual re-election almost a certainty, more and more members of this latter-day crop of legislators decided to career out in Madison.

Those are the real reasons the 132 are staying put except for the few who are opting out altogether for reasons of their own.

The popular explanation that the candidate shortage from this traditional source is that the next governor is going to face an impossible challenge is an excuse not a reason.

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