Thursday, March 29, 2012

A letter to Wisconsin snow birds and expatriates

By Bill Kraus

Everyone knows about the recalls. What everyone doesn’t know, and what people who haven't been around lately might not know, is that they really aren’t recalls. They are what golfers call “mulligans” and what non-golfers know as “do overs.” In Wisconsin, if enough people are dissatisfied with any incumbent who has been in office for at least a year, they can circulate petitions seeking a new election, and if they get the requisite number of signatures, an election will be called.

No justification is necessary. This is not an impeachment. This is not a recall. This is a petition for a new election for any and all candidates who want to run including the person who thought he or she was elected for a fixed term.

The recall petition for the governor and lieutenant governor are the most prominent. The reason so many people signed it (more than 900,000) had to do with fixing the structural deficit the Democrats left behind and crafting a balanced budget for the next biennium.

The fixers were accused of excessiveness or worse to get this done. Thousands protested and a personalized “Recall Walker” movement ensued.

This spread to the legislative branch which had approved everything the governor had recommended. Step two of what would blossom into something like recall mania was intended to punish those who lived in reasonably vulnerable districts (a small minority) and who voted to punish the public unions for years of what their victims characterized as bullying. If this had succeeded, it would have put an end to one-party rule. It reduced the Republican majority in the Senate to one vote, but, all the spinning to the contrary notwithstanding, it didn’t succeed.

The Democrats contributed to the chaos by trying to stop the legislative process by leaving the state and denying the majority a quorum on crucial issues. This sparked another set of recalls, step three in the “recall” season, of Democrats this time. None of these succeeded. The next wave was another series of state Senate recalls of Republicans which were to be coterminous with the statewide recalls. If they succeed the Democrats in that body will become the majority.

The fourth stage of recall fever is threatened but not yet executed. It would be a return to punishing incumbents for their votes or, in this instance, non votes. There was no voting on the mining bill, and Senators Jauch and Schultz, who had fashioned a compromise which nobody voted on either, were threatened with recall for whatever it is they did or didn't do. This recall was distinguished from previous recalls because it was initiated by a special interest group. In effect, it opened up a whole new avenue of populist activity which is intended to influence legislation and legislators who are already under the gun of belligerent outsiders with money and/or rabid members.

All of this has led to little progress on the governor's agenda items, which are pretty much the only agenda items that have any prospect of being advanced.

The latest bit of mischief threatened to unravel the districting bill in which the Republicans used their dominant majorities to make more legislative districts (and two congressional districts) more favorable to one party (theirs usually) and to further the trend of downgrading the importance of the general elections in as many places as possible. One of the challenges to this legislation went before a panel of federal judges. They found that the redistricting was unacceptable in two small areas. The judges ruled that the Legislature would have to make the repairs the judges wanted before the redistricting act would get their blessing. They sent it back to the authors. The authors, who no longer had a majority in the state Senate due to an unexpected resignation by a Republican state senator, refused to go back into session to do the patch up the court wanted. The newly co-equal Democrats said they would do what the court wanted done and a lot more as well to undo the damage the districting law had done to the number of districts in which they had a chance to prevail.

Dysfunction metastasized into paralysis.

The court decided to do it themselves.

PS: If this isn’t depressing enough, those of you who have computers should go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website and read John Byrnes’ great Op-Ed piece of February 11 ("City leadership needs to be brushed back, businessman says")about what dysfunction, inattention, and other shortcomings are doing to Wisconsin’s economic future, and what Steve Walters had to say in "Recall-torn Senate looks undriveable" on March 24 about hardening of the positions and the arteries in the Capitol.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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