For Release: Wednesday - December 16, 2015
Walker Enacts into Law the Assault on Democracy in Wisconsin
Sets Good Government Back to the 19th Century
Henry F. Potter, the richest and meanest man in Bedford Falls, would have approved.
The corrupt status quo in Wisconsin has not only prevailed this past Fall, it has triumphed completely. For now. The majority party in the State Assembly and State Senate moved Wisconsin far back into the past, vanquishing more than 100 years of transparency and sensible limits on special interest political money – reforms which, in part – date back to the Governorship of Robert M. La Follette, Sr.
This assault on democracy, while supported and encouraged by Walker, was largely the handiwork of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and a cadre of hyper-partisan Republican legislators whose lust for total and absolute political control trumps any lingering respect they may have had for bipartisanship and for open, transparent, accountable and honest state government.
The destruction of the eight-year-old, non-partisan Government Accountability Board was based on completely discredited charges, false premises, character assassination and outright falsehoods. The enactment into law of both the GAB destruction (Assembly Bill 388) and campaign finance deform (Assembly Bill 387) measures – together with the recently enacted law to exempt political crimes from being investigated under the state’s John Doe process – will all combine to allow political corruption to take root and flourish in Wisconsin.
This will be remembered as one of the saddest and darkest chapters, at the end of one of the most horrendous legislative floor periods, in our state’s 167-year history – when honest, accountable and transparent state government was systematically dismantled in favor of hyper-partisan political advantage, retroactive decriminalization, and revenge.
The entire process under which Assembly Bills 387 and 388 were first unveiled in October, fast-tracked through a single public hearing in Madison only, and then rammed through committees and rushed to the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly and slammed through, before being stalled for a week in the State Senate, has been among the most abusive, disrespectful, secretive and utterly anti-democratic in the history of the Wisconsin Legislature.
The first measure up for preordained adoption and passage by the GOP-controlled Legislature was what we have been calling "Campaign Finance Deform." It will:
* Codify into law the ability of candidates to be able to collude and coordinate with outside special interest groups in campaigns as long as the outside groups avoid using a few selective and limited words in their communications, such as "vote for" or "defeat" or "support." This is what is known as "express advocacy." Outside communications that use virtually any other words, however negative or laudatory, can be coordinated with candidates and, furthermore, require no reporting or disclosure of the donors. This is relatively unprecedented in the nation. Only Florida allows this. But the Wisconsin measure goes even further than Florida by allowing coordination between candidates and outside groups who engage in express advocacy as long as there is no explicit discussion of that coordination! What it all means is that a tsunami of secret money from within and outside of Wisconsin can flood our elections to influence our votes. No other state allows for as many opportunities for political money to escape simple, basic disclosure as this legislation will allow in Wisconsin. The purpose is simple: to keep Wisconsinites as ignorant as possible about who is influencing elections and controlling public policy-making in this state.
* Allow political parties and legislative campaign committees (slush funds controlled by state legislative leaders) to collect significant corporate and other special interest money and individual contributions of any amount, with no limit for distribution to candidates and allows them to run undisclosed phony issue ads and to coordinate with phony issue ad groups. This will greatly enhance the power of the major political parties in the state but, much more alarmingly, will vastly increase the power of legislative leaders with unlimited political money to bestow upon, or withhold from candidates, at their whim, and to crush any dissent and threaten with primary opposition those legislators who defy the leaders and try to exercise independent judgment. This was at the heart of the 2001-2002 Legislative Caucus Scandal – political money in the Capitol compromising and undermining pubic policy-making. This provision will lead to far more secret money and opportunities to engage in illegal activity without detection.
* Eliminate the currently required information about employers from individuals who make political contributions to candidates for state office. All that will be required to be reported will be the name, address and occupation of the donor. Which tells the public very little about her or him.
Republican legislative proponents of AB 387 have continually made the completely false and erroneous claim that they "had to" craft this legislation in order to bring Wisconsin into "compliance" with the Citizens United vs. F.E.C. U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2010 and because of other court decisions since that time. While some revisions to Wisconsin's decades-old campaign finance law are necessary, the revisions in this legislation most certainly are not required. Coordination can still be limited and disclosure can certainly be required. This measure was specifically designed to shroud Wisconsin in an impenetrable veil of secrecy and dark money, destroy transparency, and inject Wisconsin with an unlimited and inexhaustible supply of special interest money to ensure Republican control of state government for the near and distant future. That's not democracy, it's oligarchy.
Then, the majority party undertook the dismantling and destruction of the 8-year-old, nonpartisan Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. Twelve Republican State Senators who voted to establish the GAB in 2007, voted to destroy it. Nothing changed in the intervening 8 years except the politics. So these 12 State Senators were all for the GAB before they turned against it.
The hyped-up charges and accusations made against long-time State Elections Board and GAB Director Kevin Kennedy, and against the retired judges themselves, were vicious, scurrilous, hyperbolic, exaggerated, and – almost entirely – just untrue. But the right-wing echo chamber faithfully repeated the misinformation continually, the real facts be damned. And there were other, more practical, hyper-partisan political reasons to destroy the GAB. Revenge and the unquenchable thirst for absolute control over a state agency that had the independent power to investigate political corruption, trumped the truth. The GAB destruction legislation:
* Gets rid of the six non-partisan judges and replaces them with two six member commissions, one for elections and one for ethics, comprised of partisan political appointments – three Republicans and three Democrats – which all but guarantees tied votes and, therefore, gridlock and inaction.
* Gets rid of Kevin Kennedy. He has overseen elections and campaign finance law in Wisconsin for more than 30 years, capably and in a scrupulously non-partisan manner. He will be replaced by two administrators who will be selected by partisan legislative leaders.
* Most significantly, it eliminates the independent, "sum sufficient" funding for investigations by the GAB into possible political corruption (being perpetrated by legislators, for example). This was the absolute most critical and central component of the creation of the GAB in 2007. Without it, the GAB is under the complete control of the legislative leadership. This independent stream of funding for investigations acted as a huge preventative tool for corruption in the Capitol. Without it, the GAB will be feared by no one and ignored by most. That is by design. The GAB will be transformed into another Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation – a toothless, ineffective state agency with no ability to effectively enforce election, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying law. And it will likely be utilized as a tool to aid in the achievement of the partisan political goals of the leaders of the Legislature and the Governor.
These profoundly anti-democratic measures are not the sum total of the majority party’s assault on good government in Wisconsin. Renewed attempts to weaken and even eviscerate our state’s open records laws, as well as to undermine the effectiveness of the respected non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau by adding partisan political appointments in all state agencies, are in the works for early 2016. And there may be more.
Thomas Jefferson said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And so it is that Wisconsinites must, not only be more vigilant to stave off further erosion of our democratic institutions, but we must also organize, register to vote, turn out and work as never before to take back Wisconsin from those who seek to destroy it.
We will never forget these past several months when democracy and transparency in Wisconsin were brutally assaulted and curtailed. But we will never give in or surrender and will continually strive to restore democracy to the state, which was once the national icon for honest, open, accountable and clean politics and good government in the nation. This battle has already been joined and will not cease until we once again prevail.
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