Thursday, February 28, 2013

Things to do today (in government)


By Bill Kraus

Okay the governor wants to talk about ideas big and small: expanding school choice, cutting income taxes, a venture capital spur for the economy, where public employees have to live, and, who knew, taking over the Circus Museum in Baraboo.

The Legislature hasn’t weighed in yet on what they like about his agenda or what is on their short list.

Neither of the above are going to be interested in what’s on my to-do list, but I have enough chutzpah to let them know what I think the governor is missing and the Legislature should be considering.

My list is not particularly daunting or surprising either.

I start with the obvious: dispassionate redistricting for whoever is still around when the next census is published in 2021, and whatever can still be done to clean up campaign funding and financing.

I put voter ID on the wait-and-see list. This is in the hands of the courts where it does or does not belong, but where it will be handled for better or worse.

The constitutional offices of Secretary of State and State Treasurer are all hat and no cattle. Everything important they once did is now handled by the Department of Administration, and while they were important in 1848 everything they do now is ceremonial. Both can safely be either defunded or eliminated.

The other constitutional item is selecting members of the judiciary. Elections are traditional and ingrained in our culture. But partisanization has raised its ugly head. The case for an appointed judiciary is increasingly compelling.

School funding is arcane and arguable, but one thing is clear and ignored. Senator Mike Ellis suggested some time ago that poverty is an educational disability and funding should recognize that. As far as I can tell, nobody has picked up on this idea, which brings me to another education item.

All government functions except education have a cabinet department. This means that, in effect, the governor is the statewide superintendent and the Legislature the school board. The constitutional office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has, not unlike those of the Secretary of State and State Treasurer, been eviscerated. Its functions are largely ministerial. A policymaking department of education, besides advising and inspiring the governor and the Legislature, could do what DPI does now as well.

Since technology has unfairly and wrongly deposed the print press as the communication system and source of information on all things governmental, the state government has to step up until and unless we realize that the awesome internet is a library not a newspaper. What the government has to do is tell the citizens what they do and how much what they do costs. They need to itemize their services like a grocery store itemizes. Regulated businesses are information giants compared to governments. Take a look at your property tax bill. Schools, City, County. That’s itemization? It isn’t. It is not rocket science to treat taxpayers like stockholders and give them the kind of information stockholders get to validate their investment or take their money elsewhere. Information is power. It’s high time to empower the voters.

One more thing. The recall provision in the Wisconsin constitution makes us more like Britain’s parliament and less like the legislatures the exalted founding fathers created and fought for. We respond to bad public performance or decisions by our representatives at the next election. The recall process is, not unlike Britain, more immediate. Also more expensive, more divisive, and more intimidating. Despite the strong urging of Alexander Hamilton and the softer inclination to the Brits by John Adams, Jefferson’s ideal of representative government survived. By their votes in election-mad 2012, Wisconsin voters tacitly agreed with Jefferson. We’ve got impeachment for bad personal behavior. We don’t need recall.

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