With Christmas over, you’re probably relieved your mailbox won’t be stuffed with those insufferable Christmas letters people send you to gloat about their annual accomplishments. People who you only know from their annual Christmas cards think it’s important to let you know that they ran three marathons, lost 50 pounds, and their kids became the first children to gain entrance into Yale at age 8. Basically, it’s an invitation for you to jam an ice pick into your brain.
Yet just before the end of the year, we get this Christmas card from the state Government Accountability Board, who decided it was necessary to convince you what a great year they had. Fortunately, they sent it to a Wisconsin address – since they apparently think we all live in Minneapolis.
Now, you may think a year where the GAB fell two years behind compliance with federal law, thereby lighting $22 million of taxpayer money on fire, and doing so in secret, might not be a banner year for the GAB. Well, according to the GAB, you would be wrong.
Among their accomplishments, they list the creation of the new “Campaign Finance Information System,” which cost taxpayers $1 million to complete. This, of course, is an electronic campaign finance database that the legislature first ordered in 1999, and has yet to see, almost a decade later. Finally, after years of failure, the GAB got around to “creating” this database – translation: they wrote a million dollar check to some Connecticut business to do it. A business, incidentally, that thinks Minneapolis is in Wisconsin. (Say what you will about the boobs at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign – and there is plenty to say – they have provided a searchable donation database for years – FOR FREE.)
Not content to let the Biblically-prohibited self pleasure end there, the GAB lists this crowning achievment of 2008:
Voted to amend a state administrative rule to redefine the political purpose of the unregulated, so-called “issue ads” now used in Wisconsin political campaigns, as part of its statutorily mandated review of former Elections Board rules.
What an accomplishment. In fact, it’s such a major accomplishment, it’s illegal. It would be like telling your friends your income increased by $20,000 last year – and you only had to rob 10 wheelchair-bound old ladies to do it.
The GAB is bragging about their vote to grant themselves the sole authority to restrict free speech during campaigns. Basically, they determined that a secretive board of unelected bureaucrats would be the perfect venue to arbitrate what constitutes a political communication during elections and what does does not.
The ability to regulate issue ads is a contentious constitutional question which with the U.S. Supreme Court and state legislatures have been grappling for decades. And generally, these bodies err on the side of free and open political speech (one exception being the “McCain-Feingold” federal law, which has accomplished… nothing.) Lawmakers have tried to push issue ad regulations through the legislature, but have been rebuffed each time through the legislative process. Yet the GAB judges, yearning for the days where they got to wear the robes and rule their judicial fiefdoms, have deemed themselves superior to Wisconsin Legislature, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution. The legislation that enabled their creation merely allows them to enforce existing law – not create new laws out of whole cloth.
And to crown this year of stupendous achievment, they throw in this nugget:
Another G.A.B. goal will be accomplished very soon: Combining its 40-person staff in one office headquarters near the State Capitol so that the public, election officials, state legislators and lobbyists can access all agency services in one location.
I suppose we should give them credit for consolidating the stench in one downtown location, to spare frequent visitors to Madison the unpleasantness.
So let’s review the GAB’s year, according to their own Christmas letter: They failed to comply with federal law regarding voter lists, they unilaterally voted to restrict free speech, they spent $1 million on an Excel database that could be programmed by a hippo with a laptop, they continue to conduct their affairs in secret, and they have new office nameplates.
Come to think of it – let’s not tell them Minneapolis is in Minnesota. Then maybe they’ll leave those of us in Wisconsin alone.
With the drama regarding Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich still unfolding, corruption is now back in style with the news media. The Blago scandal allows the usual cast of characters to run out and claim that because Blagojevich tried to auction off Barack Obama’s senate seat, we need to enact whatever campaign finance reforms they prefer – regardless of whether they would actually be relevant to the current debacle in Illinois.
Take the recent ranting from Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, called “The Real Scandal.” He believes the fact that some people do business in Illinois and Wisconsin vindicates his view that government should be able to micromanage political speech. Or something. Basically, his little story has the word “Blagojevich” in it, and that’s all it really needed for McCabe to pretend it was relevant:
Besides, the political crime ring that brought federal prosecutors to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s doorstep has tentacles that reach into Wisconsin. Nick Hurtgen, a former top aide to Tommy Thompson, is a central figure in the Illinois drama. He was indicted for his alleged role in a kickback scheme, then a judge dropped him from the case before he was reindicted late last year. Hurtgen has remained active in Wisconsin, making sizable donations to Mark Green’s failed bid to become governor and maintaining close ties to another Republican known to covet the governor’s office, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. But Hurtgen played both sides in Wisconsin, having helped organize a 2002 fundraiser in Chicago for Jim Doyle.
Wonderful. But, of course, that story has nothing to do with what’s happening in Illinois right now. In fact, I was actually spotted paying a highway toll in Illinois last week – perhaps I am also partly to blame for the Blagojevich scandal. Jim McMahon played for both the Bears and the Packers – seems a little fishy, huh?
Then McCabe gives up on trying to pretend there’s any link between Blagojevich and Wisconsin and pivots to “The Real Scandal:”
It was perfectly legal for the investment bankers and insurance execs and real estate tycoons to spend over $430 million buying federal office holders in the 2008 election cycle alone. These interests have spent well over $2 billion to sew up Washington since 1990. What they bought was lax oversight and the freedom to roll the dice with other people’s life savings. And a bailout when it all went sour. Even as tanking companies like AIG and Freddie Mac and Ford Motor Company were fixing to ask the feds to rescue them from themselves, they were showering money on both major parties to pick up the tab for the national conventions.
Yeah, all those campaign contributions by Ford Motor Company are doing them a lot of good right now. That automaker bailout bill is just flying through Congress. Or not.
Furthermore, any time the WDC throws out a number, it should immediately be discounted. Take, for example, their “report” that says big business gives twelve times as much to candidates as organized labor – a number immediately contradicted by a search of federal campaign contributions by political groups. Actually the top 2 donors were AFSCME and the NEA.
So basically, the Blagojevich story merely serves as the host for whatever snake oil these campaign finance parasites are selling. I may need to check the statutes, but I believe what Rod Blagojevich is accused of doing is already illegal. And not just a little illegal. Does anyone believe that Blagojevich would have magically decided not to auction off a U.S. senate seat if there were tighter limits on campaign contributions, or if there were increased regulation of election advertising? Of course not. It’s like saying too many people are driving drunk, so we need more laws to regulate car ads on television. In fact, the exact opposite is true – the more laws we pass, the more opportunities for corruption there are, as government encroaches more and more into our lives.
As a side note, USA Today last week conducted an analysis of the most “corrupt” states in the U.S. Their list was topped by the state we all consider to be a hotbed of government corruption – North Dakota.
Basically, the newspaper just took a total number of elected officials who have been convicted of misdeeds in each state, added them up, and handed out a “corruption ranking.” Wisconsin ranks in the middle somewhere, with 2.1 convictions per 100,000 residents.
But is this really an accurate measure of corruption? It would seem that a state that arrests and convicts its elected officials that break the law is actually fighting corruption. States that tolerate corruption don’t send their legislators to jail – and therefore would rank pretty low on the list (Illinois ranks 18th, for instance.)
So to the states high on this list, congratulations – you’re doing a good job of weeding out your bad eggs. Not merely tolerating them.
“I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible behavior. I apologize to my family, friends and my constituents who expect more from me. On Thursday evening I was arrested in Columbia County by the Wisconsin State Patrol for drunk driving and possession of marijuana. I cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so throughout the entire process. There is no excuse for my actions and I accept full responsibility. This is not typical behavior for me, but unfortunately I drank too much and exercised very poor judgment. I want to let my family and friends know that I regret what I did and am very sorry for the embarrassment and pain I have caused.”
Right… the first time he ever had weed in his car, and he got busted. Amazing how that happens.
Capitol watchers remember earlier this year, when Wood quit the Republican Party, holding himself up as the paragon of virtue. He was welcomed with open arms by the Democrats, who thought enough of him to give him a committee chairmanship when they took control of the Assembly. Oops.
Of course, had the Assembly ended up in a 49-49 tie, Wood would essentially have been the de facto Assembly Speaker, as he would have been able to decide committee assignment, what bills get to the floor, etc. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your Wisconsin State Government.
In the end, Wood’s attempt to blackmail the Republican Party now look about as convincing as some other pot-induced capers we’ve seen:
The Dude:“I dropped off the money exactly as per… look, man, I’ve got certain information, all right? Certain things have come to light. And, you know, has it ever occurred to you, that, instead of, uh, you know, running around, uh, uh, blaming me, you know, given the nature of all this new s—, you know, I-I-I-I… this could be a-a-a-a lot more, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, complex, I mean, it’s not just, it might not be just such a simple… uh, you know?”
UPDATE: I actually managed to get through this post without making a joke about Wood desperately wanting to chair a joint commitee. Shame on me – I should be suspended for a week by the National Blogging Association for this grievous oversight.
Filed under: Budget — Christian Schneider @ 1:23 pm
Everyone now knows the state is facing a large budget deficit heading into the next budget cycle. The Legislature will, without question, pass some “revenue enhancers” (otherwise known as “tax increases”) to fill in some of the hole.
In making their case for higher taxes, Democrats in the majority will reach for the easiest tax increases they can find. They’ll pick the low-hanging fruit, usually in the form of sales tax exemptions. (A full list of exemptions can be found in chapter 77.54 of the state statutes.) For instance, clay pigeons are exempt from sales taxes, as are dog haircuts. So Democrats will give the public the impression that all we have to do is extend the sales tax to your puppy’s hairstylist, and presto! – budget problem solved.
Perhaps the most entertaining of these exemptions is the tax break for the purchase of bull semen. That’s right – semen purchased for inseminating livestock is tax-free. So it appears I’m going to stock up on bull semen before the Legislature starts taxing it and it gets too expensive. This actually sounds like a pretty good deal for bulls around the state – with their seed in such high demand, they’ll start getting crateloads of adult bull materials delivered to their pens. (Insert your own “beef stroganoff” joke here.)
Unfortunately, as one of my colleagues quipped, “this budget will not be solved on clay pigeons and bull semen alone.” Each budget, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue issues its Summary of Tax Exemption Devices, which details how much each exemption saves consumers. According to the DOR, the semen exemption shorted the state by $2.7 million in FY 06. The clay pigeons exemption “cost” the state $200,000. If legislators are looking to plug a chunk of the $5.4 billion budget hole by eliminating sales tax exemptions, they’re going to have to go after the big boys.
And what are the big ticket items? Well, physicians and dental services are currently exempt, which saved consumers $495 million in 2006. Eliminating this exemption makes health care more expensive for everyone in the state. Food sales tax exemptions saved consumers $550 million. The prescription drug plan cost the state $116 million. Eliminate this exemption, and the senior groups might burn the capitol to the ground. Sales of items to local school districts exempted $295 million – undo this exemption, and property taxpayers will have to pick up the tab for their school districts’ higher costs.
So while we can have fun nitpicking all the goofy tax exemptions within the code, the only substantive progress can be made by eliminating the really large exemptions. And these exemptions are large for a reason – millions of people of modest means take advantage of them. And that’s no bull.
Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel features a blaring headline warning that some group has given Wisconsin an “F” in helping students with college financial aid. Sounds pretty serious – we must really be falling behind other states in offering financial aid, huh?
Well, actually, no. Forty-nine of the fifty states got grades of “F” for affordability, which might make one think this bogus “study” might just be a crass ploy by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education to push for more taxpayer money. And one would be right. Couldn’t the Journal Sentinel just as easily have written the headline “Wisconsin Keeping Up With College Affordability?”
You may notice that college “affordability” to university bureaucrats always means “more taxpayer money,” never “keeping tuition down.” Universities never like to keep college affordable by charging less for their services – they only consider college attainable when they can jack up tuition, then get the state to pump more taxpayer money in to subsidize the college educations of the poor. This allows them to continue paying their armies of administrators their lavish salaries. They get you coming and going.
In fact, in terms of “affordability” in the sense normal people would define the word, Wisconsin is doing extremely well. Wisconsin ranks second to last in the Big Ten in tuition, even after Governor Jim Doyle proposed significant increases in the 2004 and 2005 school years. Here’s the list of resident undergraduate tuition at Midwestern Big Ten schools, courtesy of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau:
Michigan State 8,262
Ohio State 8,082
Ah, but you see, Wisconsin is not “affordable,” since we’re not spending enough taxpayer money on financial aid. Or are we?
In the 1998-99 fiscal year, the state spent $17.5 million on the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant (WHEG) for UW students. By 2006-07, that number had more than doubled, to $39.2 million. (Although, admittedly, it dipped slightly in 06-07 after an immense 22% one-year increase in 2005-06.) Much of that WHEG increase was implemented to make up for the aforementioned tuition increases meant to offset a general purpose revenue cut to the UW in the 03-05 biennium.
The Measuring Up “study” on which the Journal Sentinel breathlessly reports takes none of this into account. Nor does it take into account the quality of a university. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the University of Mississippi funds a slightly higher percentage of pell grant recipients than Wisconsin. Does that mean Mississippi is a more desirable school to attend? Does the fact that (to their credit) the UW-Madison offers a world class education so cheaply factor in at all?
If Wisconsin is serious about keeping school “affordable,” it should look at holding down tuition – not raising tuition, then turning to the taxpayers for even more money to allow lower income students access. In fact, some studies suggest that increased financial aid has the effect of increasing tuition – if universities know so many government loans and grants are available, they can raise tuition to take advantage of the inflation.
A couple weeks ago, I explained how a Democratic Legislature could begin to micromanage political speech to their advantage by passing a partisan version of campaign finance “reform.” Today, the Wisconsin State Journal interviews all the usual suspects cheerleading for these new laws.
The article, which identifies some potential roadblocks to passing “reform,” includes quotes from five proponents of new laws regulating political speech (Sheridan, Erpenbach, Ellis, Heck and McCabe), and one quote from an opponent, attorney Mike Wittenwyler. Wittenwyler’s quote mostly deals with the issue of taxpayer financing for campaigns, which is really more of an ancillary issue. To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker’s spokeswoman dodges the issue, saying they want to work on a bill that will “pick up support from Republicans.” In Capitol-speak, that means they don’t really want to do anything, because they can pass whatever they want without a single damn Republican – they just want to be able to blame the GOP when nothing passes.
But given the imbalance in quotes, you’d think hardly anyone opposes campaign finance “reform.” This isn’t a surprise, given the cheerleading newspapers all over the state constantly do in an effort to shut down political speech during election time. If groups can’t spend money to disseminate their speech, then newspapers think they will become more relevant.
Of course newspapers, who should be the staunchest defenders of free speech, are all for shutting down speech that isn’t theirs. Imagine the Legislature passing a bill saying the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the Wisconsin State Journal had to report the names of all their subscribers and sources of income to the state before they could write a political editorial or endorse a candidate. Think they’d approve of that restriction on their free speech rights?
Of course not. But that is exactly what they argue should be imposed on any group that doesn’t happen to be a newspaper. Unless you have been blessed by the all-knowing editorial boards of this state, they argue you shouldn’t have the First Amendment right to criticize your government. Instead, you’d be silenced unless you run through a mountain of red tape, reviewed by the very government you’d be trying to criticize, and subjected to the same retribution by those government officials. There’s a reason we vote anonymously – and that anonymity should apply to political speech.
In case after case, courts have rejected the government’s attempts to micromanage the political speech of its citizens. Most of these cases stem from the federal McCain-Feingold law, which purported to eliminate money from the political system. In fact, it has done nothing but drive it down into these 527 groups, where it is harder to trace. And large portions of the law have been struck down by the courts as undue restrictions on political speech. There are terrorists who have a better won/loss record in the U.S. Supreme Court than senators Russ Feingold and John McCain.
Yet, given reporting on the issue, you’d never know how often these laws are struck down by the courts. This article only makes mention that if a law were enacted, then those “shady” groups would file a lawsuit. But then again, you can file a lawsuit against your coworker for having excessive nose hair – it doesn’t mention that those lawsuits actually have a solid track record of succeeding.
Just once, it would be interesting to see a newspaper report on the issue of campaign finance reform without treating it as if it were some necessary “reform.” Imagine a story in the State Journal with a headline “Democrats Push for Campaign Speech Restrictions,” which, incidentally, is an entirely fair way of portraying the issue. Don’t hold your breath.