Sunday, February 22, 2009

Could be worse

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 22, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Members of the new Assembly leadership teams visited with the eclectic, outspoken, bipartisan Common Cause board of directors last week. We learned a few things. We hope they did as well.

Tom Nelson, the Assembly majority leader, gave deserved credit to the Speaker, Mike Sheridan, for the rule that fundamentally shuts down 99 fundraising operations while the budget bill is working its tortuous way to passage and signature. He acknowledged that this was a small step towards Wisconsin’s pristine past. He also pointed out that a reason it happened was that it could be and was done unilaterally and expeditiously.

The hope, of course, is that this is the first step in a journey of 1,0 00 miles to steal a JFK aphorism. Representative Nelson gave us no reason not to think it was.

In his appearance later in the meeting, Jeff Smith, the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, laid out his agenda. It included everything on the reform wish list and offered further assurance that it might be a pretty good year for reform ideas.

Without discouraging him, the board members asked about the reality of passing anything, no matter how worthy, that cost money in these dire economic times.

The BIG reform bill is propelled by doses of tax money that would go directly to candidates’ campaigns. More importantly, it includes the promise of additional tax money to discourage big spending by the third-party organizations and interests and millionaires who have been hijacking campaigns pretty willy nilly lately.

This has been a boon to the hired guns who are running these organizations and the TV stations that are the beneficiaries of their ad campaigns and a bane to the overwhelmed candidates who are their victims or, in the millionaires’ cases, their opponents.

The less expensive bill that would bring public money to judicial elections has a better chance because it’s more popular with voters who question the practice of lawyers giving money to judges. The fact that it wouldn’t go into effect this year when funding the state budget occupies positions 1 through 10 on the legislative agenda also improves its chances.=C 2

The transparency bill is even cheaper. It costs nothing, with the possible exception of a Supreme Court appeal. It would require everyone who wants to participate in political campaigns to play by the same rules. Candidates and parties have to tell everyone where they get their money. They also have to loudly proclaim their approval of the advertising being broadcast on their behalf. Third-party campaigns currently do neither of the above.

The fact that disclosure has also been the one and only reform idea that has always had the full support of the now minority Republicans put this in the slam dunk category.

“Not so fast,” said Mark Gottleib, the Assembly assistant minority leader, when he spoke to the board. The reasons for this reversal were not articulated but were surely signaled by former Speaker Heubsch’s failure to advance the disclosure bill passed by the Senate in the last Legislature, which was also never satisfactorily explained.

Free speech concerns have been expanded to require full protection of anonymous free speech which seems to have bumped this idea from the Assembly Republicans’ “will do” list. This is disheartening, but not fatal inasmuch as the disclosure-prone Democrats, whose funders are either well known or not afraid to be, are now in control of both houses.

This is not a proviso-free situation, however. The governor, who has always been a friend of anything-goes-free-for-all campaigning, is still in the mix. So far he has chosen not to bring the subject of reform up in two major speeches to the people and the Legislature; not a good sign. Can he be counted on to introduce, urge, or even sign what Representative Smith and his committee might give birth to? Don’t bet the farm.

Putting the minority-but-vocal Republicans and their tacit ally in the governor’s office aside, the pressure for campaign fairness legislation in Wisconsin, with economic restraints, seems to be higher than usual. Not stratospheric but not bad.

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