Sunday, January 25, 2009

The state of the paper

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 25, 2009
By Bill Kraus

In January of 2009, Madison’s Capital Newspapers ran a small item announcing that another 12 jobs had been eliminated, mostly in the newsroom.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy.

The New York Times borrowed a lot of money from someone they once characterized as a Mexican drug lord and sold most of their headquarters building—so they could lease it back and have a place for their office and the money they spent to build it.

None of the papers whose troubles had been announced in 2008 did not say they were doing better. As a matter of fact, if you have a couple of bucks and want to own a newspaper you might talk to Sam Zell in Chicago or whoever answers the phone in Miami.

It goes without saying that what you would be buying is the right to lose money.

All of this is both deplorable and frightening. It is also predictable and uncorrectable.

The first sign that I saw that everything was not as it should be in the newspaper business was over 30 years ago when I was told that the then powerful Milwaukee Journal would not deliver their papers to me in Stevens Point anymore.

I asked why not. The answer was couched in more businesslike terms but came down to telling me that their mostly Milwaukee-based advertisers weren’t interested in displaying their merchandise to people in Stevens Point.

I suggested that by becoming a regional newspaper they were giving up power for money. I heard from another source that they didn’t disagree, but they didn’t change their decision to retrench either.

A few years later I was in the governor’s office and discovered that if a story appeared in either of the Milwaukee papers, but especially the morning Milwaukee Sentinel, that story would be on the governor’s agenda that day.

These papers still had 10 reporters covering state government, and the fact that no one in Stevens Point knew this or cared hadn’t registered in Madison. Yet.

It has now. The Sentinel is gone. The Journal Sentinel bureau is a shadow of its former self.

The power to set the public agenda has shifted to the likes of talk radio screamers who admit to being in some business other than journalism.

The information part of our working democracy is not working.

Thomas Jefferson said if you have to choose between the right to vote and a free and omnipresent press, choose the latter. Lee Dreyfus never worried about the peoples’ intelligence, just their knowledge, their information.

Both would be appalled about what has happened in January of 2009.

Everyone with the possible exception of the sanguine techies (*) is or should be as well.

* The techies believe the Internet supplants the press, blogging is journalism, and anyone addicted to the newspapers’ format can read them online. The facts are that the Internet is a marvelous resource but is like drinking out of fire hose as a news source, blogs are built on journalists’ reporting—as this one is—and the online editions will last only as long as the reporters do.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

New directions for campaign reform

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 18, 2009
By Bill Kraus

Mike Sheridan, the new Speaker of the Assembly, has proposed a rule prohibiting fundraising by the members of the Assembly during the budget process. This is the first sign that somebody in power thinks the heretofore invincible, insular incumbents should be more concerned about their image, about how they are perceived than they have been.

The newly minted Government Accountability Board is proceeding apace on its mission to level the electoral playing field by requiring 3rd parties who are participating in elections to follow the same disclosure rules the candidates do.

The newly minted Government Accountability Board is proceeding apace on its mission to level the electoral playing field by requiring 3rd parties who are participating in elections to follow the same disclosure rules the candidates do.


The evidence from the three states that have opted for full public funding of state elections indicates they think they are getting something worthwhile for their money. There are reportedly more candidates, more competitive races (in Wisconsin one third of the legislative seats are uncontested, and because of sweetheart redistricting another third may as well be, and truly only 10 percent of the seats are really up for grabs), and a noticeable if subjective improvement in quality in their public officeholders. The chances of this happening in Wisconsin, however, is low to nonexistent.

Two of the three states that have full public funding also have an initiative and referendum system, which is a high price to pay for change, including this one. The other state, Connecticut, got a public funding bill passed when the governor went to jail for campaign malfeasance and the lieutenant governor who succeeded him spent all of her chips during several late-night sessions to get a bill to do this through a very reluctant legislature.

Republicans didn’t like spending limits and public funding when the state could afford it. Their “welfare for politicians” rhetoric was effective even then despite the reports from Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. The prospect of adding even the few millions it would take to what promises to be an extraordinarily unpalatable budget bill are somewhere below zero.

Somewhere In Between

The Legislature must sign off on what the Government Accountability Board has proposed. While the Republicans have always contended that they think the best regulation is full disclosure, they did not advance the bill the Senate sent them on this subject last year. There is some suspicion that the Democrats who controlled the state Senate then felt safe in sending a far reaching disclosure bill to the Assembly knowing it would die there, which it did. There is a clear indication that Mike Sheridan’s Assembly is no longer a safe haven for campaign reform measures. The ball is in Senator Decker’s court. We’ll see what we will see.

We all know that the Right To Life lobby will fight to the death (you should pardon the allusion) to keep the names of the donors to their campaign spending operation secret. The manufacturers’ association is at a serious disadvantage in raising money against their mortal enemy, the teachers’ union, and would be worse off if they had to report whose money was being used for their political ads and activities. The Club for Growth, Greater Wisconsin, and the Coalition for American Families, are perhaps less menacing but equally devoted to keeping their donors’ anonymity intact. No one knows where "cause" money from elsewhere or even from Wisconsin (from the tribes, to mention one below the radar source) is coming from or going to. These are formidable opponents of disclosure and the fairness that would ensue. The Government Accountability Board’s action is not a slam dunk.

There is one potential place where full public funding of campaigns might be considered even in these bleak economic times. The members of the Supreme Court have asked for it for their races. It seems it’s too late to do anything about this year’s election, so the bill (which is almost in the chump change category) wouldn’t come due until 2010, and the welfare for politicians sloganeering doesn’t resonate as loudly here where it can be countered with “How do you feel about lawyers giving money to judges?”

Lastly, there is a discouraging word from afar. The Democratic members of the New York state legislature who were so gung ho about campaign finance reform measures when they were in the minority are in the majority now. “Not so fast,” seems to be the word out of Albany.

Surely this will not happen in Wisconsin. It is worth noting though that a combination of recalcitrant Republican leaders and their duplicitous Democratic peers have kept reform and reformers at bay for almost two decades now.

Could it be a new day? There’s hope.


Friday, January 16, 2009


Press Release
January 16, 2009


Jay Heck – 608/256-2686
Despite the bitter, sub-zero temperatures engulfing Wisconsin this week, political reform managed to ignite on a number of fronts at the beginning of the 2009-2010 state legislative session. Two reforms first proposed by Common Cause in Wisconsin (CC/WI), and that we have been pushing for more than 12 years, have taken significant steps forward this week. And a major player criminally charged in the infamous Wisconsin Legislative Caucus Scandal more than six years ago in 2002, may finally be tried again as a motion in court that he filed and which was certain to be denied, was denied.

First, the new Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, State Rep. Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) announced that the Assembly would consider and pass a rule in the very near future that will forbid individual members of that chamber from soliciting campaign contributions while the 2009-2010 bienium state budget is under consideration. The prohibition does not apply to the leadership legislative campaign committees that raised most of the legislative money during past budget sessions, nor does it preclude a legislator from accepting an unsolicted campaign contribution during the budget. No fund raising during the budget ought to be just that--no fund raising at all during while the state budget is in play. CC/Wisconsin will work with pro-reform legislators to get a more comprehensive ban measure introduced.

Nevertheless, it is a good start for campaign finance reform and a welcome initiative from the new Assembly leader. CC/WI first suggested this reform to then-State Senator Lynn Adleman (D-Waukesha) who included it in a reform package introduced almost exactly 12 years ago, in 1997. Since then we have been relentless in pushing for this reform and all the effort is finally showing some positive result. And the support for this reform has been bipartisan. During the last sesssion of the Legislature, State Rep. Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington) and State Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) introduced the complete campaign fund raising ban during the budget that Wisconsin needs and that we trust the new Assembly leadership will embrace after the implementation of this ban on individual fund raising. For more information on this develpment go here: Assembly Democrats to ban fundraising during budget

Another long-sought reform that CC/WI first began advocating for a dozen years ago, moved forward in the Government Accountability Board this week when that relatively new state watchdog agency (which was first devised by Senator Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) with CC/WI back in 2002), forwarded an administrative rule that would require outside organizations who currently run campaign communications masquerading as issue advocacy, to report the names of the donors who pay for those communications and to use regulated sources of money to pay for them. This reform measure, which must now be approved by the Legislature, would close the single largest loophole in Wisconsin's campaign finance law. In 1997, CC/WI was the first state reform organization to push for this reform when it testified in front of the old State Elections Board. After years of struggle, this reform is on the verge of becoming law: Agency supports change in 'issue ads'

Finally, and to absolutely no one's surprise, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected an attempt to have the re-trial for felony misconduct in public office of former State Rep. Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield) while he was the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly (1997-2002), moved from Madison to his home county of Waukesha. Jensen was tried and convicted by a Dane County Jury in early 2006 but his conviction was thrown out on a technicality because of faulty jury instructions from the trial judge. Jensen has been stringing out the legal process since then most recently by arguing that a provision included in the law creating the new state Government Accountability Board in 2007 stipulates that a legislator can be tried in his or her home county rather than in the county where offenses were commited -- as must be the case with every other citizen of the state. But what was obivious to everyone and which the Court of Appeals said this week was that Jensen is charged with criminal offenses that occurred in the late 1990's and early 2000's and was charged in October of 2002 -- well in advance of the creation of the Government Accountability Board in early 2007. So having his new trial moved to Waukesha County is not an option. Nevertheless, lawyers for Jensen will stall the beginning of the new trial even longer by appealing this week's court decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- which will almost certainly issue the same decision. In this case justice delayed (and delayed and delayed) is justice denied. For more on this see: Jensen Gets New Trial

Perhaps political reform fares best when the temperature in Wisconsin dips below zero. If that is the case, then we are hoping for a long and very cold few weeks and months ahead!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Finding transparency

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 11, 2009
By Bill Kraus

For good reasons the economy or, more accurately, restarting the economy is on the top of everyone’s short list for 2009.

Let’s not, however, lose sight of “transparency” as a worthy companion or, at worst, a number two on the list.

The multiple curses of covert operations, cover-ups, non-disclosure of political contributions are well known and deservedly under attack.

Has there been a successful and honorable covert operation anywhere recently except in your friendly neighborhood movie theater?

Has anyone who tried to cover up bad news had a better outcome than those who simply fessed up, apologized, atoned, and moved on?

Does anyone who insists that it is important for political contributions to remain anonymous have a cause that isn’t somewhat more than mildly suspicious and self-serving?

In 2008 a whole new category of catastrophes traceable to the lack of transparency emerged.

Would his clients be better off if they had asked Mr. Madoff what he was doing with their money and if they had been smart enough to get as far away from him as fast as possible when he clammed up?

Would the country be in such economic distress if our friendly bankers would have explained why they were giving mortgages to customers who had no hope of making the payments?

Would their business success have been undermined by hedge fund managers if they had fully disclosed what they were doing with all that money and what downside risks were attached to these activities?

These are rhetorical questions with obvious answers.

What is less obvious is the collateral advantage that comes with disclosure and transparency.

It affects behavior.

One of the first things you learn when you enter the public sector is that whatever you do and say is likely to end up on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. Most public servants (Illinois’s governors notwithstanding) tend to be a lot more careful about what they do and say.

The transparency that is part of these jobs is annoying, exasperating, inhibiting and often infuriating.

There are indisputable undesirable side effects to transparency.

It is, nonetheless, essential.

It is an essential predecessor to trust for one thing, and trust is the rock on which our entire political, social, economic system is built.