Monday, June 22, 2009

Senator Decker's Misguided Amendment to Eviscerate the Government Accountability Board Must Not Prevail

Press Release
June 22, 2009


Jay Heck – 608/256-2686


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What was State Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) thinking? Or why was he not thinking when he inserted his outrageous amendment in the State Senate budget passed last Wednesday evening that would hamstring the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board's ability to mount and/or continue an investigation into government corruption -- particularly if the wrongdoing is happening in the Wisconsin Legislature?

Russ Decker and his staff were around when the Legislative Caucus Scandal occurred. Decker knew that the Government Accountability Board (GAB) was devised by Senator Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) with assistance from Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and Common Cause in Wisconsin (CC/WI) in the months immediately following the criminal chargings for felony misconduct in public office for illegal campaign fund raising of then-State Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), State Senator Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee), Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield), Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti (R-Oconomowoc), and Assistant Majority Leader Bonnie Ladwing (R-Mount Pleasant) in Wisconsin's biggest and darkest political scandal in modern history. Decker even voted for final passage of legislation to establish the Government Accountability Board and its key component -- independent "sum sufficient" funding for investigations not subject to control by the Legislature.

So what was Decker thinking? His spokesperson, Carrie Lynch -- a long time Capitol insider -- issued explanations that no one in the press or anyone who cares about honest, clean, accountable state government could find credible. Here's one: “Many people felt [the board] needed to justify their budget like everyone else.” What people? Names please! The GAB is being subject to the same cuts to its budget as all other agencies. The GAB investigations are separate because they have to be in order for the GAB to be able to investigate without legislative interference -- the whole point of establishing this new agency! Their spending beyond that for GAB staff for investigations has been little - under $50,000. Who, other than Russ Decker, felt this need to eviscerate the GAB's ability to ferret out corruption?

And here is yet another Lynch "defense" of the indefensible Decker amendment:
"The only thing this does is put a dollar figure on what is spent. It does not limit their ability to do anything. The provision means that the GAB would use the same process that other agencies use to request more money.The Legislature does them all the time when state agencies need more money for a particular item. These requests are almost always granted."

How stupid does Lynch think we are? She is saying that GAB will have to come before the Legislature to request money to investigate the Legislature! That's the whole point. The GAB was specifically formed to have funding independent of the control and whim of the Legislature for investigations! Eliminate that independent funding source and you render the GAB impotent -- which is perhaps what Decker wants to do. But he should not and must not be allowed to get away with it.

If he has not done so over the weekend in secret conversations with the Assembly, Senator Decker should apologize to the citizens of Wisconsin and just drop this ill-advised, misbegotten scheme and move on. And if he hasn't or won't drop it, then Assembly Democratic leaders and Governor Jim Doyle should declare the Decker amendment "out of bounds" and off the table as a precondition to working out the rest of the differences in the budget between the two legislative chambers. On Friday morning, one powerful Democratic legislator told CC/WI that the Decker amendment "makes us [Democrats] look horrible." Well yes. And worse. It makes a mockery of the establishment of the GAB.

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When Mark Pitsch and the Wisconsin State Journal first uncovered and reported this incredibly shocking stunt early Thursday morning, CC/WI jumped on it immediately. We talked to reporters, editorial page editors and legislators-- immediately putting the heat on to get rid of this outrageous proposal.

On Thursday morning we issued this statement which resulted in an article in the statewide Associated Press: Senate Budget Limits Funding For Investigations with CC/WI's "take" on the Decker Amendment, an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, and on the statewide Wisconsin Radio Network, this news story: Budget item could hamper investigations. And then there was this story Friday morning by Shawn Johnson over Wisconsin Public Radio: Senate provision would affect financial independence of GAB.

We also consulted with the State Journal for their Friday editorial: Don't go back to bad old days at Wisconsin State Capitol, and with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for their Sunday editorial: A budget in need of nips, tucks and major surgery -- which listed the Decker provision crippling the GAB as the first item to "delete." Other newspapers have joined in the condemnation of the Decker Amendment. None have come to its defense.

Steve Walters, the State Capitol bureau chief of the Journal Sentinel wrote about the Decker amendment: Senators vote to control watchdog's budget. On Friday evening, CC/WI condemned the Decker Amendment on Wisconsin Public Television's program, Here and Now.

CC/WI also commented extensively on the secretive, closed-door character of the shaping of the state budget, even as it nears the end game, for Associated Press: Democrats might reach deal on budget in secret.

And on Up Front, the news and public affairs program hosted by Mike Gousha for WISN - TV in Milwaukee, and broadcast on television all over Wisconsin, CC/WI talked about that shameful budget process and the chances for meaningful campaign finance reform this year (which are good!) in a five-minute segment that you can watch here: Budget Passed With Closed-Door Meetings.

Your reactions and comments? Stay tuned to see how this "Decker drama" is resolved. We cannot imagine that Decker will not be forced to withdraw his shameful measure.

Jay Heck
Executive Director
Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 W. Johnson Street, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703

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Anonymous said...

Unbelievable! This is outrageous! Thank you so much for fighting this battle. We can't let them get away with this.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why the GAB needed to be created in the wake of the Chvala, Burke, Jensen, Foti scandal. These people committed crimes, were caught, were prosecuted, and were punished(Jensen is still appealing, of course). Isn't this how our legal system is supposed to work? What has the GAB done differently? What will the GAB do differently?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I agree with the first commenter.

If the GAB was around before the Chvala, et al scandal, then it might not have happened at all.

There were plenty of hints that something was amiss long before those individuals were caught.

Do you really want to wait until after a crime is committed to be in a position to do anything about it?

Let's say a scandal is brewing and an investigation is warranted. If the legislature controls the funding of that investigation, do you honestly believe they're going to provide that funding? Do you think Chvala would have done so?

Anonymous said...

The Sage of Spaight Street observes that excessive power causes hearing loss. Perfectly normal people who hear and respond to reasonable recommendations develop selective deafness if something is proposed that might limit the power that is causing this deafness.

The only treatment seems to be high decibel cries of outrage from constituents.