Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reform Update - March 31, 2009

By Jay Heck

1. "Phony Issue Ad" Reform Measure Clears Government Accountability Board and Legislative Approval Would Appear To Be Likely

2. Government Accountability Board Proposes Reforms That Would Bring "Good Government" Back to Wisconsin

3. Outside Special Interest Groups Weigh In On State Supreme Court and Dane County Executive Elections

1. A major campaign finance reform measure that Common Cause in Wisconsin (CC/WI) first proposed and has been pushing for since 1997, cleared the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (G.A.B.) on Monday and its fate is now in the hands of the Wisconsin Legislature. Both State Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) and Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) have expressed support for disclosing the donors and regulating the funds for campaign communications masquerading as issue advocacy (as has Governor Jim Doyle) and so it would appear that the rule promulgated by the G.A.B. will (or should) survive legislative review. If and when it does, it will close the single largest loophole in Wisconsin's outdated and ineffective campaign finance laws and would be in effect for the 2010 elections in which the Governor, Attorney General, other statewide offices, the entire Assembly and half of the State Senate will face the voters of Wisconsin.

For newspaper coverage of this significant development (with CC/WI's comment) go here: Amended rule to regulate issue ads on its way to Legislature.
For radio coverage click here: GAB forwards issue ads rule.
For more background and in-depth explanation and analysis of this reform measure go here: ·Common Cause in Wisconsin: Government Accountability Board adopts rule to require more transparency and regulation of campaign-type ads

2. Also yesterday, the G.A.B. made public a number of reform proposals that have long been supported by CC/WI that would help to make state government in Wisconsin "good" again. Here is the Board's legislative agenda and you can read analysis and CC/WI's comment about these proposals in this Wisconsin State Journal article: Comprehensive overhaul of ethics, lobbying laws considered in ...

3. Finally, if there is any remaining doubt that the Phony Issue Ad Disclosure and Regulation measure is really needed by conservative, right -of -center groups and some (but not all) Republican legislators who have opposed it in the past, then the cuirrent elections for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and for the Dane County Executive ought to help dispel that doubt. The left-leaning "Greater Wisconsin Committee" has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of incumbent Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson or against her opponent, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy Koschnick in the form of undisclosed, unregulated communications. Likewise in Dane County, the same group has weighed in to support incumbent County Executive Kathleen Falk and to attack her opponent, former Madison School Board Member and Republican candidate for the Wisconsin State Senate Nancy Mistele.
To date, no outside spending by conservative groups of any consequence had occurred for Koschnick or for Mistele or against Abrahamson or Falk. So much for the widely-held, but completely erroneous perception that requiring the disclosure and regulation of phony issue ads would hurt Republicans and Conservatives more than Democrats and Progressives. These insidious, under-the-radar, sneaky communications have been a plague on everyone's house in Wisconsin for years and it is time for those ouside groups to play by the same rules that candidates must play by: disclosure and regulation in order to provide transparency for Wisconsin voters of all political persuasions.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Welcome to the public sector

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 29, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Now that you're a quasi-public...you have two new rules to follow in your dealings with the press.

The Ody Fish rule: When you are asked a question, never, never, never, ever lie. There are three acceptable responses:

I don’t know the answer. I do know the answer, but I cannot tell you what it is. And the answer is....

The Owen Coyle rule:

Regard everything you say to anyone anywhere in any circumstance as something that will appear on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.

There are a few other things that are worth knowing about the status that attaches to becoming a legitimate “beat.”

You now have a new constituency. The public. The press is the connection to this new constituency.

There are two major components in journalism. Editors assign reporters, write headlines, decide how prominently stories will be displayed. This will range from above the fold on page one to buried somewhere near the classified ads in the least prominent part of the paper. You have no control over this placement or these headlines and neither do reporters.

Reporters may get the story wrong or misquote sources, but editors are invisible and the real bane of your existence.

Reporters like candor and will respond viciously when overdosed with “no comments,” which are actually comments by their very nature.

Reporters are only as good as their last story and their beats are their life blood. It’s hard to think of them sympathetically, but not keeping their needs and priorities in mind is a big mistake. They need you more than they will ever admit. This need can be reflected in accuracy if not affection. They misquote. You clam up. They suffer.

Editors overreact to what they decide are big stories. Think of all the stories that didn’t get reported in New York while reporters and photographers were massed in front of Bernie Madoff’s apartment building on 64th Street.

Reporters have an incurable instinct for the capillary. They think, for example, that everyone but them is overpaid, and will pounce on anything that smells of big money going to places and people who they regard as undeserving. Take the money and the perks if you wish, but in your quasi-public status be assured you will pay a price in unwelcome publicity.

If you or your organization become sensational enough to attract the attention of the talk radio screechers, you will have entered a whole new coverage zone. These people are in show business. They take the information produced by journalists and blow it so far out of proportion that it is unrecognizable.

They are a blight on the information landscape. They are not journalists.

You are in a more exposed but not uncontrollable position. You can be candid. You cannot be stupid. You will survive.

Good luck.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus


Monday, March 23, 2009

Missing the mark

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

By Bill Kraus

Earmarks are fast becoming the “Madoff” or, worse yet, the “A.I.G.” of contemporary politics. An undeserved fate.

Consider that government budgets are a combination of entitlements, programs, and “earmarks” disguised as or incorporated into entitlements and programs.

The difference between these earmarks and those added by legislators in the next stage of the budget process is that they are proposed by the executive branch and the bureaucrats who construct the executive budgets. The legislators’ earmarks are toxic. The executive/bureacrats’ are not.

The way to detoxify the legislators’ contributions is with line-item vetoes.

This idea gets shot down in Washington by legislators who are protecting their branch's rights. The fact that it does no such thing is assiduously ignored. What happens without a line-item power is that the earmarks grow like cancer, which is bad, and executives sign a budget bill that they must have which is loaded with pork.

Earmarks which have to pass a line-item veto test fulfill several roles in the budget bill process which are at least useful may even be desirable. These earmarks give individual legislators a chance to bring worthy but overlooked priorities to the attention of the executive branch and the legislative leaders. Some pork is or can be made into bacon.

They also give legislators a way to get insistent constituents and interest groups off their backs and legislative leaders a way to buy essential votes from the philosophically obtuse and/or the members of the inevitable sleaze caucus which is present to a greater or lesser extent in every legislative body.

The earmarks get added to the budget bill. The earmarking legislators vote for the bill. If the earmarks are unworthy the legislative leaders make sure they are accessible to an executive veto. If the executive doesn’t find them worthy, they are vetoed. The vetoes are sustained. A leaner budget bill becomes law.

The government gets an essential budget bill. The legislators either get their earmark or get a story and an excuse to mollify their constitutents. The system works.

Only purists or poseurs like the late Senator Bill Proxmire, who made enemies of his 99 peers and a reputation for pettifogging frugality with his infamous “golden fleece” awards, are inconsolable.

Get the line-item veto where it doesn’t exist, and get the benefits of earmarks which are endemic, incurable, and maybe even desirable.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus


Monday, March 16, 2009

Save the news gatherers

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 16, 2009

By Bill Kraus
The crisis in news gathering and dispersing isn’t about newspapers. It’s about news gatherers.

News is produced by reporters and editors who are expensive and in a congenitally inefficient business. It’s about hanging out, being there, being everywhere. Watching and writing about what happens if and when something does.

Their management’s response so far to saving newspapers has been to reduce the numbers of reporters and editors, which saves money and diminishes the coverage which is the reason for their existence.

What is the point of doing that?

What the country needs is more reporters in more places reporting on more things and fulfilling the essential journalistic function of making the powerful turn square corners and giving the unpowerful the information to call the powerful to account as, if, and when necessary.

Simple enough.

Except the revenue flows needed to pay for them aren’t flowing the way they once did.

The traditional combination of subscribers and advertisers no longer works.

Advertisers have gone elsewhere. Subscribers are getting their news from the free sources provided by the suicidal newspapers which give away what they should be selling and/or the faux sources that litter the blogosphere.

Newspapers are shrinking, disappearing, merging, going broke, and what Jefferson described as the sine qua non of democracy is more non than ever.

There are sporadic responses from the increasing numbers of no longer working journalists. A group of Wisconsin writers who specialized in environmental coverage (one of the first non-essential specialties to get the axe) is trying to expand and distribute through other, as yet undecided, means news about this subject. A former investigative reporter is assembling a group of the newly outsourced in hopes of rebuilding this really essential and really expensive journalism and selling it back to whatever remains of the newspaper business. These I know about. Other news substitutes are probably being spawned as well.

Maybe this is the future. A free-standing collection of news gatherers whose work is available, at a price, to whatever media survive the advertising holocaust.

It is possible, it may even be desirable, that the news business will find something akin to the iTunes solution that has brought order and money to the people who create and perform music, another sector that was in a kind of Internet-induced chaos not so very long ago.

It is even possible that the terminal newspaper business will face the realities and find new ways to get paid for what it produces and, at the very least, quit giving away with one hand what it is trying to sell with the other.

This imperfect democracy has survived wars, depressions, natural disasters, chicanery, even stupidity, but a largely uninformed, ignorant, inattentive populace can bring it down.

Save the reporters so they can save the country? I think so.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Full Public Financing of Wisconsin Supreme Court Elections Is the Only Viable Solution

Press Release
March 12, 2009
By Jay Heck

The current election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court is not likely to be the high spending special interest frenzy that the court elections in 2007 and 2008 were. But it is still very nasty and charges continue to fly about how campaign contributions influence the candidates, further eroding public confidence in the impartiality and integrity of Wisconsin's highest court.

Read this recent, featured article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It details the problems in the 2009 election in the race between the Chief Justice and her challenger and it contains comment from Common Cause in Wisconsin about what seems to us to be the only viable way we can improve the current, distasteful process in the near term.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Zealots with hearts of gold

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 16, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There is a movement afoot in Wisconsin to give the board of the Department of Natural Resources the power to hire and fire the secretary of that department.

This is a back-to-the-future move to a system of governance in Wisconsin that was in place until 1968. The major departments of state government (now called cabinets) were governed by boards or commissions not the elected governor. The governor, who was nonetheless responsible for the work of and results achieved by those departments, was one step removed from the direct supervision of the operating managers of those departments.

The governor did have the power to appoint those commissioners and board members, but since their terms were staggered the governor did not get putative control of the agency for several terms. Even this control was subject to the immutable law of government that every appointment creates 10 enemies and one ingrate.

A commission headed by the legendary Bill Kellett decided, properly, that since the governor was a.) elected to govern and b.) held responsible by the voters for the management of state government, the governor should have the authority to go with that responsibility, which would include hiring and firing the people running those departments.

Thus cabinet government came to Wisconsin. The governor appoints cabinet secretaries. The state Senate approves those appointments.

None of the 13 governors I have known disputed the wisdom of the Kellett Commission’s conclusions and recommendations. Nor would any scholar of governance and management. Authority and responsibility must be commensurate.

So what has brought this discredited idea back to life?

Distrust and dislike of the governor?

Distrust of elected officials?

Distrust of democracy?

Not likely.

What seems to be in the forefront of the move is a desire by large numbers of citizens whose organizations make the worthy case for environmental issues and programs to increase the spending on, attention to, and priority for these issues and programs.

This is suspiciously like the efforts of other zealots who are determined to put their special issues above the more important but general issues which voters elect officials to promote and protect.

Many years ago a man named John Gardiner said, in effect if not in fact, that the people are the least organized and most endangered sector of society.

What government by special interest has got us is what the New York Times’s Bill Safire predicted it would get us 30 years ago: hardening of the arteries.

The environmentalists’ hearts are true, their issues are important, and their cause is indisputably honorable, but they and it are not the whole thing. They and it may not even be the main thing in some cases.

The proposal is anti-democratic at best and elitist at worst.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Blog Archive

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog


Right and Wrong

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 1, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Judge Barbara Crabb has turned her relentless logic on our judicial elections. Our first exposure to this admirable trait was when she told the state of Wisconsin, in effect if not in fact, “You cannot ban gambling and indulge in it.”

Her ruling on the rules surrounding judges and politics is equally logical. The rules are that judges cannot run as partisans or do partisan things like make donations or join parties. Judge Crabb says, “Who are you kidding?"

She points out that most judges get the job in the first place by appointment. These appointments are made by governors who are partisans and are unlikely to stray far from their list of political loyalists when looking for candidates for these jobs.

Even those few judges who are elected to open seats do not come full grown from the brow of Jove. They have some kind of political history and credentials.

It follows then that any voter who is interested and semi-conscious will know where the state’s judges are coming from politically and ideologically.

The attempts to deny this reality started when rules about non-partisanship were promulgated in 1913. These were reaffirmed in 1968 and strengthened again as recently as 2004.

In the new world of special interest politics, Judge Crabb says, party affiliations are not the problem anyway. The remedy to this new, more powerful threat to objectivity is a combination of disclosure and recusal. A judge who takes a campaign contribution from, say, the organization that is interested in school choice should reveal that and recuse him or herself if, as, and when a case on this subject comes before him or her.

Well and good, even though it may cause some difficulty in rural Wisconsin, where a judge is likely to have a friend or contributor involved in a lot of otherwise routine litigation.

The problem with following the judge’s logic so literally and single-mindedly is it goes against the probably unattainable ideal we seek from judges: a kind of impartiality which approaches pure disinterest.

We don’t always get it. It may even be, like the song in Man of La Mancha, an impossible dream.

It is worth aspiring to nonetheless. It's something every judge should have as a goal or a code of conduct.

The excesses of partisanship are unavoidable in the legislative and executive offices where we vote for people who share our beliefs.

What we want when we enter a courtroom is not favor but fairness.

A dispassionate judiciary is a worthy idea. Overt partisanization is not.


Common Cause in Wisconsin - In the News
March 2009

  • Amended rule to regulate issue ads on its way to Legislature
    March 31, 2009 - The Daily Cardinal

    According to Common Cause in Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck, interest group spending first became an issue after the 1996 election, when groups began generating anonymously funded attack ads.

    “By avoiding the specific words, [groups] were able to escape having to abide by Wisconsin’s disclosure laws, which require that you have to report the names of the donors,” Heck said. “So they were able to use unregulated anonymous money to run essentially campaign ads.”

    The new amendment, which closes the loophole that allows groups to do this, will likely lead to less third party “attack” ads because donors would have to disclose their names and might be hesitant to be associated with these ads, Heck said.
  • GAB forwards issue ads rule
    March 30, 2009 - WRN - Wisconsin Radio Network

    "They are very negative, and they have a connotation, but because they avoided using the so-called 'magic words,' they escaped regulation, says Jay Heck with Common Cause in Wisconsin.

    Heck says the new requirements mean we may hear fewer of these ads. "You're going to find, I think, a lot of people of people who happy to contribute anonymously to these nasty ad very reluctant to have their names attached to the types communications that we've seen in the past," says Heck.

    "The Speaker of the Assembly, Mike Sheridan and the Senate Majority Leader, Russ Decker, have said they are very supportive of this measure, as has the governor," notes Heck. "It would appear this should be able to survive legislative scrutiny." Heck says a court challenge is likely, but he notes similar federal regulations have survived two challenges in the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Advocacy groups press for state Supreme Court election reforms
    March 16, 2009 - Green Bay Press Gazette

    "Common Cause executive director Jay Heck said the past two Supreme Court races, including last year’s nasty contest between Justice Louis Butler and eventual winner Michael Gableman, had a horrible tone and were too costly."
  • Top Lawmakers move to freeze pay,
    March 13, 2009 - WKOW Madison

    "This is good news," said Jay Heck of Common Cause Wisconsin. "I think the legislative leadership did the smartest thing they could do."
  • Koschnick defends himself for contributions from lawyers,
    March 8, 2009 - Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

    "Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, said Supreme Court justices and candidates opposing them will always be criticized for taking money from lawyers until a public financing system becomes law.

    "'The only viable and realistic solution in Wisconsin is full public financing for candidates for the state Supreme Court who agree to abide by revised spending limits,' Heck said. 'If you cannot accept any contributions, you cannot be influenced. Period.'"


Common Cause in Wisconsin -- on TV!

Executive Director Jay Heck comments on the new state budget on WKOW Channel 27 News.
Experts say the Wisconsin state budget is like art -- it is anything you can get away with.

"Very few bills on their own get thru the legislature," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. "Many are introduced, few are ever passed. The state budget must be passed."

Said Heck, "Ultimately how the budget is decided and what stays in and what stays out is a matter of votes."

For more CC/WI in the News, click here.