Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Extraordinary Bad Decisions

By Ann Grewe

Our clean government in Wisconsin just received two additional blows this November, setting the scene for corruption and partisan decisions in the future.

Government Accountability Board (GAB) was composed of six retired judges, including our own Judge Thomas Barland, who served as Eau Claire County Circuit Court Judge until his retirement in 2000, then continued to serve as Reserve Judge and an independent mediator, arbitrator and court referee, while also serving as an active member of the GAB.

We have been so fortunate to have a nonpartisan, highly ethical organization such as the GAB charged with ensuring that elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying were all conducted according to the laws of Wisconsin. Their website,, uses clear language and short sentences to spell out the standards of behavior for everyone connected with Wisconsin’s government.

Just passed during November’s extraordinary session of the Assembly were the GAB destruction act (AB 388) which splits the GAB into two new boards staffed with partisan appointees and ends the GAB’s ability to investigate alleged wrongdoing by public officials -- such as the GAB-approved probe into Governor Walker's aides and associates that put six of Walker’s staff in jail.

A law passed in October now exempts the crimes that jailed Walker’s staff from being investigated under the state’s John Doe process. (John Doe investigations are done to determine whether a crime has occurred and, if so, by whom.)

A second bill just passed, campaign finance deform (AB 387) allows unlimited campaign contributions from a range of sources, permits corporate contributions to political parties and legislative campaign committees, and boosts contribution limits to candidates. It also makes clear that candidates may coordinate with so-called “issue advocacy groups” that need not disclose how they raise or spend money to influence Wisconsin voters.

All these bills combine to allow political corruption to take root and flourish in Wisconsin. Credit our Republican governor and Republican majorities in Wisconsin’s Senate and Assembly for these extraordinarily bad decisions.

Ann Grewe is a concerned citizen from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A good week for bad government... mostly

By Bill Kraus

In a week that the legislative-led state government added to its “protect the majority and the incumbents” proposals, a lawsuit about gerrymandering took a step toward a hoped for Supreme Court appearance.

The legislature completed it’s defanging of the Government Accountability Board by bringing partisan management in and getting Kevin Kennedy out of election and ethics oversight and investigation.

Another pro-incumbent move was to open another tap for the flow of money to power.

Gerrymandering, which is the machete of incumbent protection, wasn’t discussed.

There will be no movement on the issue by the legislative leaders who are now fully in charge of running state government. The governor’s role is secondary and docile. He doesn’t have to initiate. He will sign whatever he is sent.

But over in the federal courthouse, a lawsuit had a hearing before three federal judges who were asked by the 7th District Court of Appeals to rule on a motion by the state of Wisconsin to dismiss a plan which would make gerrymandering, like racially motivated discrimination, a sin.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

WI GOP seeks access to unlimited secret money, end to nonpartisan oversight

By Sandra Miller

Today, our State Assembly votes on legislation to both dismantle Wisconsin's nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB), and significantly expand the corrupting influence of out-of-state, secret cash in our elections. The State Senate is expected to do the same next week.

If passed and later signed into law by Governor Walker, these two measures will most assuredly "wreak havoc" on democracy in Wisconsin:

Assembly Bill 388 decimates the GAB – the agency that ensures we have clean, fair elections, while enforcing our campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws. AB 388 scraps the current GAB, replacing it with two separate commissions: one focusing on ethics, the other on elections.

And the board's nonpartisan judges? Gone!

Instead, these two agencies will each consist of six partisan, political appointments – three Republicans and three Democrats.

Hmmm... sounds like a recipe for deadlock.

Well… the GOP Leadership did say that the model for their "new and improved" GAB was the Federal Election Commission – an agency that, by its chair's own admission, is both dysfunctional and deadlocked.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Roger Utnehmer on Nonpartisan Redistricting Reform in Wisconsin

The following is a statement made on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 by Common Cause in Wisconsin Board Member Roger Utnehmer at a press conference in Green Bay on recently-introduced legislation to end partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin:

Common Cause is a citizens lobby that advocates for clean open government and campaign and redistricting reform.

Being a broadcaster for 38 years has made me a fiscally-conservative capitalist and a socially-liberal progressive.

I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats.

I crammed four years of college into seven working for a Republican state senator and ran for the assembly in 1974 as a Republican.

My background makes me like a lot of people in Wisconsin, the political middle-ground, people who can support Republicans on fiscal issues and Democrats on social issues.

People like me make the case that redistricting reform, preservation of the Government Accountability Board and over-turning Citizens United are bi-partisan issues.

The message I have today is simply this; the most patriotic civic engagement people can make today is to become involved with Common Cause and support redistricting reform.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Wisconsin as Russia

By Bill Kraus

“In Russia, the law was not there to protect citizens and people, it was there to aid authorities. The law was not meant to be used by citizens, but by the state.”

This quote is from the book RED NOTES by Bill Browder (Yes, that Browder. His grandfather was Earl Browder, the face of the Communist Party in the United States for many years in the middle of the last century).

The context is unimportant.

What is important is that it calls to mind a series of laws enacted and proposed in Wisconsin in recent years.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The game is rigged

By Bill Kraus

The massively anti-government 2015 state government budget is almost law.

It is hard to find anyone who isn’t offended by something in this radical document.

The losers range from the entire education establishment where the iconic UW system took a large hit and the vaunted public education apparatus got a combination of competition and less money down to the people who wanted to cross some railroad tracks to get to their favorite fishing hole.

I asked the then Secretary of the Department of Administration Mike Heubsch whether there had been any pushback from the legislature. This was early. He said “no.”

This changed somewhat as the budget worked its way through the Joint Finance Committee and the individual legislators began to hear from their constituents about the harm being done to traditional Wisconsin institutions and values.

Monday, June 15, 2015

It's all about the money, stupid

By Bill Kraus

Former Governor Lee Dreyfus’s golden rule for politics: Those who have the gold make the rules.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign recently published a list of the top “rule makers” in Wisconsin over the last 4 1/2 years. In total this group contributed $116,671,117 during that period to advance their interests by promoting ideas and candidates or by criticizing opposing ideas and candidates.

Many of the groups' interests are obvious. The state’s largest business organization is on the list. It doesn’t represent all the state’s businesses or even all of its own members, but it isn’t required to disclose which businesses contributed to its political communications. The National Rifle Association is, surprisingly, on the list. Who knew they needed to spend money to get their way?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On Wisconsin?

By Bill Kraus


Jay Heck’s release opened with the following paragraph:

Democracy is in dire trouble when voters in a state have only one in ten state legislative districts that are even remotely competitive in a general election. Wisconsin was such a state in 2014. CC/WI conducted an analysis of last Fall's general election results, identifying the State Senate and State Assembly districts in which voters had a real choice that wasn't already preordained by the 2011 redistricting process.
A day later Speaker Vos told a Milwaukee talk radio host that a bill won’t be passed because “a lot of folks in vulnerable districts” are worried about a backlash.

At an earlier WisPolitics forum Majority Leader Fitzgerald responded to a question on the same point made by Jay Heck by saying the redistricting system was working fine.

Any hope of getting a hearing on a redistricting reform bill by a legislature controlled by Speaker Vos and Majority Leader is going to get past these two delusions.

There is no public outcry.

The editorials in all 19 of the state’s daily newspapers have fallen on deaf ears.

The governor is in Israel.

The SuperPacs and other sources of large political contributions are investing in things like defunding “government schools” and changing the constitution to unseat a sitting chief justice of the state supreme court.

On Wisconsin?

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Unfinished Business 6: The 4th Estate

By Bill Kraus

A crucial premise underlying what the founding fathers wrought was a well informed electorate. This presumed, without mandating it, a free flow of information from the government to those who elected and were paying them. Accessibility and responsiveness were a part of that presumption. A universal communication system manned by journalists with their more or less rigid adherence to the principles of journalism quickly morphed into what became known as the Fourth Estate.

The Fourth Estate had power because everyone read it, including the members of the other three estates who read it because they knew the people who put them in positions of power were reading it.

For most of our country’s 1st three centuries the print press was the fourth estate. Radio came along and we went there for breaking news. The print press survived radio. Television was radio with pictures and because it’s purpose was to deliver audiences to advertisers not news to viewers it didn't dislodge the print press either. But the internet has. Not because it’s better than radio or television, but because it cut off a crucial print press revenue stream, the want ads.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Can Congress Change?

By Cal Potter

Immediately after the November 2014 elections, we heard that a new era of a functional Congress was about to begin. Months later, conditions have gone from bad to worse and the hope for future improvement is not bright.

Conservatives abandoned their lawmaking role to focus on contrariness and obstructionism toward the other party, particularly the President. They vilify the President on most matters, and, in the process, are constantly shamefully disrespectful. That contrary role turned extreme in the recent letter to Iran and unilateral speech invitation to the Israeli President, undermining the work of our Department of State and President.

As most school children learn, legislative branches of government are supposed to study our problems, pass corrective laws, and find revenue sources for resultant programs. In contrast, today’s Congress acts as opposition pundits, and avoids, like the plague, major issues such as immigration, infrastructure, education, climate change, energy, war powers, and health care.

Unfinished Business 5: Getting Involved

By Bill Kraus

One of the ways I test to see if our democracy is in working order is to ask young people where they live and who represents them in the state legislature. They all know where they live. Almost all of them have no idea who represents them in the state legislature. This probably means they don’t vote, but I don’t ask that too intrusive question.

Politics and government is not a part of their lives. Or it is, at best, one of those casual parts like going to movies, watching TV, playing games that are optional and vary with each person’s interests.

What we have become is a nation of political consumers, spectators. We are in the bleachers. Politics is the business of professionals who merchandise the candidate products to us from their place in the arena.

It’s a long way from Tammany Hall, baby, where politics was people.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Unfinished Business 4: Money

By Bill Kraus

Here’s what we know about money.

1. You can’t run a campaign without it.

2. People say that too much money is spent on campaigns. The only route to putting spending limits on campaigns is to insert public money into the mix. The legislation to do this has to be enacted by the incumbents who attribute their incumbency to the money that got them where they are and who zealously protect their advantage in fund raising. Public money is anathema to them because it has to be available to their potential opponents. To be effective it also has to be appropriated in amounts large enough to offset expenditures by the third party organizations. So it’s expensive too.

3. Candidates hate dialing for dollars, but they hate not having the money it brings in more.

4. The organizations that raise the special interest money which is now the dominant source of campaign spending have made it clear to the candidate beneficiaries that their funds will dry up if they have to disclose their donors in the same way that the candidates have to disclose their donors. Even though the Supreme Court has urged legislatures to enact this kind of disclosure legislation, few do.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Unfinished Business 3: Law Enforcement Elections

By Bill Kraus

Judges are elected in non-partisan [in quotes] spring elections in Wisconsin. As partisan organizations and their money made an appearance in these contests on the indisputable premise that it is cheaper to buy influence with four Supreme Court justices than with 50 members of the state assembly, a law was passed to fully fund those elections with public money [inadequately but admirably] which was important and to provide public money to offset and discourage campaign spending by third party organizations of all stripes and colors, which was essential. This innovation got its inaugural run in a campaign which coincided with the winter of riotous Wisconsin which was set off by Act 10. It’s inaugural run turned into a referendum on Act 10 instead of a contest between judicial candidates. Everything and everyone was demonized in that tumultuous moment, including the fledgling Impartial Justice law. The governor and the legislature offhandedly cut off the crucial public money in the wake of that election and the law died in the delivery room so to speak.

Another Supreme Court election looms. There is no Act 10 hanging in the balance, but the possibility that this election will be less about the candidates and more about a philosophical fight between a couple of monied outsiders with a score to settle looms.

Monday, January 26, 2015

More Unfinished Businesss 2: Public Education

By Bill Kraus

The distinguishing tradition in our country is free, mandatory, universal public education through high school for all. This is a colossally difficult thing to deliver to our diverse population, many of whom are indifferent or hostile to the offer and more who are ill equipped to take advantage of it.

The other distinguishing tradition about public education, to steal from a lament in the advertising business, is “everyone wants to be an art director.”

Public education is a mosh pit of reform, regulation, review, change. Everybody has an idea about public education. Everybody wants to dive in and evaluate teachers. Nobody respects the organization of public education. Nobody seems to care that the principals have the job of hiring, firing, and managing the teachers, like managers everywhere of everything do. All reforms bypass the management people and go right to evaluating what students have learned and what and how teachers have taught. The management superstructure whose job it is to do that is bypassed and ignored. Everybody is a quarterback and every day is Monday morning.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Unfinished Business 1

By Bill Kraus

It’s an insiders game, and the insiders will do what they can to keep it that way. They will say that everyone else is uninterested in politics and governing, and there is plenty of proof that this is dismayingly true. Not as true as they say though.

It is perpetuated by the insiders in several ways. They don’t invite outsiders in. They are particularly wary of academics who at one time provided the kind of expertise and creative thinking that made things like the Wisconsin Idea possible. In Wisconsin it was a rare government that didn’t have UW staffers or professors in cabinet jobs and sprinkled elsewhere throughout the government in positions of power. They have been replaced in at least the last two administrations by legislative staffers, bureau careerists, former legislators and other insiders.

The Blue Ribbon Commissions that looked at the mole hills like efficiency as well as the mountains like public education are nowhere to be seen. Even the studies and recommendations like those that came out of Bonnie Reese’s legislative council where legislators and outside experts and activists pondered the imponderable have fallen into disuse. These not only brought citizens and outsiders into the inner circle, they also give citizens and outsiders a relationship with and understanding of the bureaucracy and bureaucrats who make the government work. Bring them back.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Civil Discourse - An Occasional Attempt To Restore Civility To Our Civic Discourse

By Roger Utnehmer

Two legislative proposals under consideration in Madison would inject politics into what should be a non-partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court. One proposal would have the chief justice, now determined by seniority, elected by a majority of members. The other would require justices to retire at age seventy-five.

Both appear to target Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

The seven member court is divided. Four justices are described as conservative and three as liberal. Abrahamson, regarded as liberal, would probably not be elected chief justice if the selection were put to a vote of the court. Selecting the chief justice based on seniority keeps politics out of the process.

The proposal to require retirement at seventy-five also targets Abrahamson who is eighty-one. Voters knew her age when they overwhelmingly re-elected her in 2009.

If representatives are sincere when they deny the personal focus of this legislation is the removal of Chief Justice Abrahamson, then the proposals should be amended by grandfathering existing members of the court and making them effective with future elections.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A wake up call for incumbents

By Bill Kraus

Reform is something to talk about not do in the halls of government, which are for the most part bastions of the status quo.

There are a couple of possible exceptions however.

Not surprisingly these reforms (a) protect and/or (b) enhance the permanence and power of the incumbents whose hands are on the levers of power.

The first is called “disclosure.” When the Supreme Court opened what seemed at the time to be the floodgates to spending by outsiders on political campaigns, but has turned out to be more of a garden hose, the court said that the freedom to spend did not include the right to hide. The court said they would look favorably upon any legislation that disclosed who was doing the spending.

This, surprisingly, did not evoke a wave of disclosure proposals. The incumbents who were given this power and encouragement were told by the newly unregulated potential spenders that they didn't like disclosure and their contributors really didn't like it and would go away rather than tell the wider world who they were.