Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Campaign Finance Reform (page 1 of 4)

“Every Single One”

I’ve discussed campaign finance reform a lot on this blog – probably 90% more than anyone really wants to hear.  So I was pleased when President Obama broached the subject during his trip to Madison on Tuesday of this week.  The President waded into the Citizens United waters when he told the 26,500 onlookers:

And so you can persuade them maybe to give the Republicans the keys back if they’re not hearing the other side of the argument. So a lot of them are fired up. And thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, they are being helped along this year, as I said, by special interest groups that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on attack ads. They don’t even have to disclose who’s behind the ads. You’ve all seen the ads. Every one of these groups is run by Republican operatives. Every single one of them — even though they’re posing as nonprofit groups with names like Americans for Prosperity, or the Committee for Truth in Politics, or Americans for Apple Pie. I made that last one up.

“Every one of these groups is run by Republican operatives.”

Then someone should tell these Republican operatives to stop running ads saying Scott Walker is okay with disabled people being raped.  (In fact, that ad is being run by the Greater Wisconsin Commitee, funded by noted Republican operative Governor Jim Doyle.)

Surely, it’s shady Republicans who are running ads falsely alleging Sean Duffy wants to “gamble away” Social Security by “privatizing” it.

Of course, both sides have groups running negative ads on their behalf.  But for the President to flatly state that only Republicans do it is insulting.  I’ll just wait here for the state’s editorial boards to criticize him for his bitter, partisan rant.

Don’t You Just Want to Pinch Mark Neumann’s Cheeks?

As a father, I’ve figured out that nothing – nothing – is more adorable than when little kids use big words that they don’t understand.

In fact, when I was a little kid, my parents used to take me to their favorite seafood restaurant.  Sometimes, my mother would get a buttered lobster.  I would stare at the red lobster shell, enthralled by the claws and eyes.  Finally, in the loudest voice I could muster, I blurted out:

“Mom, are you going to eat the testicles?”

Of course, I meant tentacles.  The restaurant stopped and looked at our table.  My mother covered her face in horror.  I don’t remember us ever going back.

As it turns out, in the Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial primary, we’re seeing one of the candidates misuse a word – and it’s adorable.  Seems that Mark Neumann is claiming to be a “conservative,” without really knowing what the word means.  And you just want to pat him on the head and pinch his little cheeks.

While crashing the Democratic convention last week, Neumann, a former congressman who has repeatedly claimed to be the “only conservative” in the race for governor, was asked a question regarding what he thought about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision.  The decision, handed down several months ago, affirmed the right of third party organizations to run advertisements during campaigns.  The ruling struck down a portion of the McCain/Feingold campaign finance law that banned issue advertisements close to election day.  In effect, the Court limited the government’s ability to regulate the timing and content of political speech.

But when asked about Citizens United, Mark Neumann bristled.  Here’s a video of his response:

You heard that right.  Said Neumann:

“I think they should shut down every outside source of information in this campaign except the candidates themselves…”

“Whether that’s not constitutional so we obviously can’t do that. But if Mark Neumann got to have what he wished, that’s what would happen, sir.”

Neumann would actually support governmental censorship of political speech – if only that pesky Constitution didn’t get in the way.  He would trust the government to determine what is and isn’t a political ad, and allow it to ban whatever it believes to be objectionable.

There isn’t a “conservative” alive that would trust the federal government with that much power to abridge the First Amendment.  At least none with a fundamental understanding of what conservatism means.

What would the effect of Neumann’s ban on political speech be?  Studies have shown that in races where third parties buy advertising, voters know more about the candidates, and vote in greater numbers.  Apparently Neumann would like less informed voters who don’t bother to vote as often.

Strict campaign finance regulations also heavily benefit incumbents.  Elected officials already in office build themselves huge advantages using taxpayer resources.  Often times, challengers need help from third party groups to bring issues to the forefront that aid them in overcoming this natural incumbent advantage.  Shutting down political speech insulates incumbents from much of the criticism they’ve earned during their tenure.

Of course, if individual citizens are prohibited from engaging in political speech, it always favors candidates with boatloads of personal money who are willing to spend it.  Candidates exactly like Mark Neumann, who appears to be spending millions of his own dollars without getting much bang for his buck.

By condemning free campaign speech, Neumann is casting his lot with liberal boobs like Ed Garvey, who actually claimed the Citizens United decision was worse than Pearl Harbor.  (Do not adjust your computer – he actually said it.)  Mike McCabe of the left wing Wisconsin Democracy Campaign claimed the decision was worse than Dred Scott.  And if he had heard of any other Supreme Court cases, he’d totally think it was as bad as them, too.  (Incidentally, the Citizens United decision clearly hasn’t meant the end of democracy, as liberals predicted.  For dozens more posts about the folly of campaign finance reform, go here.)

I had a friend in college who was terrible with directions.  He thought what ever way his car was pointed was north.  It seems like Neumann is working off the same plan – “I’m a conservative, so whatever I say must be conservative, too.” Only it’s not.

So while it does make you want to mess up his hair and buy him an orange push-up, Neumann’s claim that he’s the “conservative” in the race for governor has now lost all meaning.  Republicans now don’t have to worry about whether there’s any validity to his claim, as Neumann clearly himself doesn’t know what the term means.

[Note: WPRI does not endorse candidates – it’s up to you to decide who you support.  But we will discuss candidates when they pitch goofball ideas.]

The Booming Lobbyist Business

Diana Marrero at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today points out that despite the recession, businesses have spent as much as ever on lobbyists.  From the article:

While Americans across the country tightened their belts, companies, organizations and other entities spent an average of 5% more on Washington lobbyists last year. The total amount spent on federal lobbying reached a record $3.5 billion in 2009, according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.

What’s implicit, although not expressly stated in the article, is that much of the lobbying is due to the vast expansion of government during the recession.  The “stimulus” plan was a gold mine for lobbyists – directing government money toward their pet projects. While Wisconsin was in the process of losing 170,000 private sector jobs last year, the number of government jobs actually grew.

This follows a slow motion phenomenon that has been growing for decades.  As government passes more and more laws and regulations and takes over more control of our lives, it makes perfect sense for special interests to lobby up – either to get their slice of the government goods that are being handed out or to protect their members from the growing tentacles of the law.

Want to get rid of the lobbyists?  It’s simple – we don’t need campaign finance “reform.”  We need to get the government out of our lives.

The WDC Circus Rolls Back Into Town

Today, Professor of Nothing Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign bemoans how the University of Wisconsin System is losing its “Progressive” tradition.  Having already demonstrated his lack of understanding of campaigns, law, and the U.S. Constitution, McCabe is now determined to embarrass himself in another venue – higher education.  One would think that McCabe would lay low after being completely obliterated in public by Wisconsin Supreme Court justice David Prosser, but he seems hell bent on further discrediting himself.

This is actually the first time we’ve heard from McCabe since he declared the U.S. Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision (in Citizens United vs. FEC) to be as bad as the famous Dred Scott decision, which codified segregation in the U.S. for the next 100 years.  Certainly, blacks who were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs during desegregation share a kinship with McCabe, since having to watch a few extra campaign commercials seems to be just as oppressive.  (It is likely that McCabe’s legal expertise led him to invoke Dred Scott merely because it was a case that he had heard of.)

But now, McCabe is chafing because a professor at the UW (Ken Goldstein) has dared to do the unthinkable – he actually has been conducting research that conflicts with the storyline the WDC has been trying to sell to its contributors.  Goldstein has demonstrated that in cases where negative advertising occurs, voters not only know more about the candidates, they actually show up at the polls in greater numbers.  Naturally, McCabe sees this as a threat, since it would mean he’s for less informed voters that vote more infrequently.  (Which, as it turns out, he is.)

Rather than defending his own indefensible positions, McCabe lashes out the only way he knows how – by saying the UW is “as owned as our politicians.”  He says:

But instead of challenging the status quo and engineering new reforms and working with public officials to make those reforms a reality, most of the political scientists on campus are missing in action. Some of the most prominent among them are apologists for the way things are and throw their weight around on behalf of the very forces that have corrupted our politics and sullied Wisconsin’s once-proud reputation.

The UW System has 6,032 professors.  ONE PROFESSOR conducts a study that conflicts with McCabe’s fairy tale, and suddenly the whole system is corrupt?  (Goldstein is likely thankful people think he single-handedly has enough influence to undo 150 years of Progressive tradition at the UW.) Perhaps all the other faculty members should run their rigorous scientific studies by scholar Mike McCabe to determine whether they’re corrupt or not.  (Of course, how “corrupt” you are is 100% proportional to how much you stray from the “Progressive” tradition of the UW – i.e., how conservative you are.  If the UW keeps cranking out liberal studies, then there’s nothing to see, keep moving.  That’s academic rigor for which the UW should strive.)

Of course, nobody knows research like McCabe, whose bogus “reports” would be laughed out of any community college in America.  Maybe next, McCabe can poke his nose into the UW Medical School to start telling them which of their medical research methods are acceptable in the “Progressive” tradition.

Since it’s always fun to take a trip down memory lane, let’s take a look at some of McCabe’s greatest hits:

  • He bemoans the influence of lobbyists, yet he himself is a registered lobbyist.
  • He complains about how organizations that don’t disclose their funding sources attempt to change state law, yet he doesn’t disclose his own donors, and travels around the state in favor of things like single payer health care.
  • He complains about the negativity in campaign advertising, yet openly dreams about poisoning Wisconsin Supreme Court justices.
  • He believes there’s too much money in campaigns, until there’s not enough money, since nobody will know who the candidates are.

This is just a small sampling of the WDC’s incomprehensible recent history.  I’m sure UW professors, who mostly have Ph.Ds, enjoy being lectured on research ethics by a failed former Assembly candidate who will take any position that fits his storyline at any given time.

Your Tin Foil Hat Update

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case which essentially granted free speech rights during campaign season to groups of people (corporations, labor unions), in addition to individuals.  Incidentally, polls show that the U.S. public agrees with the Court. (To which a liberal friend of mine responded “just shows how dumb we are.”  Apparently, she hasn’t connected that type of smarminess to the Democrats’ current dive in popularity.)

Of course, no debate on campaign finance in Wisconsin is complete without checking in with the state’s most vocal moonbat, former Gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey.  He offers these measured comments:

You appreciate the enormous wrecking ball that blasted through our world yesterday. This is, quite frankly, the worst day in American history. Pearl Harbor was awful but we were a democracy willing to lay our lives on the line to preserve that democracy. Not so after this catastrophe. The court has destroyed democracy in our land. This group of five have handed the once proud system to AIG, Goldman Sachs, U.S. Bank, and the other robber barons. Election 2010 may be the last real election.

There you have it.  Determining that the government shouldn’t be regulating political speech is worse than Pearl Harbor.  And 40% of the public in Wisconsin actually voted for this guy when he ran for Governor.

For those still not convinced that the ruling in Citizens United is the right one, read this excellent article in Reason Magazine.  It concludes:

In the end, the right to speak does not mean the power to control the political process. It merely means the right to convey views that citizens are free to reject—which, if they distrust corporate power, is exactly what they are likely to do.

Under this ruling, corporations will be allowed to speak about politics, just as they may speak about their products. In both realms, though, the effort is wasted unless they offer something their audience wants. The marketplace of ideas is not so different from the marketplace of goods.

Corporations have the freedom to communicate what they want. But the people still have the ultimate right: the right to say no.

Citizens United: Today’s Victory for Free Speech

I have to admit, in the three years I’ve been posting on this blog about campaign finance issues, it seems like I’ve been yelling into a well.  Being an opponent of “campaign finance reform” is often a lonely place – I feel like an attractive girl at a Star Trek convention.

It makes sense that campaign finance reform isn’t exactly the type of issue that moves people – mostly, because the rules for political speech are so arcane and confusing, it’s too difficult to untangle it all.

Thus, it is gratifying to see the U.S. Supreme Court strike a blow for freedom today by removing many of the limits on political speech that have accrued over decades – most recently, under the McCain-Feingold law as enacted in 2002.  (If you really feel like blaming George W. Bush for something, blame him for signing that abomination into law.  Ironically, it was his own Supreme Court appointees that struck down this law he signed.)

The ruling eviscerates much of the limits on so-called “express advocacy,” where citizens band together and pay for ads in support or in opposition to political candidates.  The more campaign activity we have, the more citizens will be informed about candidates and campaigns – leading to more vigorous debate over our elected officials.

This recent Supreme Court decision also certainly kills a bill working its way through the Wisconsin Legislature that would have placed even more strict limits on political speech.  In 2008, I showed up to debate Senate bill authors Mike Ellis and Jon Erpenbach, who clearly didn’t even know what their own bill did, and how it related to past Supreme Court opinions.  The event was sponsored by Common Cause Wisconsin, and it was fairly clear I was the only one in the room who considered campaign spending to be free speech.  You can watch it here.)

Rather than lay out all the arguments we’ve made over the years, feel free to peruse the “Campaign Finance Reform” section over there in the right column.  So-called campaign finance reform advocates will kick and scream over what the Court did today, citing “corruption,”  but now U.S. Citizens will me more free to speak their minds come election time.  For years, Congress has been doing to free speech what they’re trying to now do to health care.  It’s just that nobody noticed.

Public Financing of Campaigns: Anatomy of a Failed Idea

Today, WPRI released a report by Mike Nichols (with research assistance by me) that delves into the origin of public financing for campaigns in Wisconsin.

While the intent of using taxpayer dollars to run campaigns was noble – supporters thought it would lead to more competitive elections and reduced special interest influence – the actual effect has been just the opposite. In fact, often times politicians (77% of those that take the grant are Democrats) turn right around and funnel the public money to campaign purposes that are outside the intent of the law:

(State Representative Spencer) Black, for example, received $4,155 from the public fund on Sept. 30, 1996. This is the same year he gave a total of $4,775 in cash or in-kind contributions to other politicians or committees, including $1,200 to the Dane County Conservation Alliance-a special interest committee registered with the state.

On Sept. 30, 2004, state Rep. Mark Pocan accepted $5,574 from the public fund. According to his campaign reports, on that very same day he made a $1,000 contribution to the Unity Fund-the Democratic Party of Wisconsin campaign account that was used, at least in part that year, to support Democratic candidates at the national level.

Hintz received his most recent public funding, about $6,000, on Sept. 27, 2008. In the month that followed, he gave $1,000 to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

There’s more:

  • In September of 2002, Bob Jauch accepted 11,932 from the WECF. In November, he made a $5,000 contribution to the State Senate Democratic Committee. He won with 62.1% of the vote.
  • In September of 2006, Jauch accepted a $2,425 contribution from WECF. In November of 2006, he made a $1,000 contribution to the SSDC, and won with 62.3% of the vote.
  • On September 25, 2002, Russ Decker accepted a WECF grant of $11,932. During the same election, Decker spent $6,300 for a poll – for a race he won with 68% of the vote. In December, Decker transferred $1,000 to the SSDC.
  • In September of 2006, Joe Parisi accepted $5,263 from the WECF. In the same election cycle, he donated $1,000 to the Democratic Party of WI, en route to winning with 75.6% of the vote.

Furthermore, public financing hasn’t done anything to improve the “competitiveness” of state campaigns.

Of the 47 winners that took the grant, 38 (81%) were incumbents. Of the 9 winners that were not incumbents, 6 of them beat incumbents (Hines, Freese, Skindrud, Loeffelholz, Weber, and Kreibich) and 3 ran in open seats.

  • The average vote for the 47 winners who accepted a WECF grant: 63.4%
  • The average vote for the 126 losers who accepted a WECF grant: 39.3%

Of the 126 losing candidates, only 11 (8.7%) came within 5% of the winner. Only 24 (19%) came within 10% of the winner.

More from the article:

Politics in Wisconsin is, at the very least, not a game for outsiders. Spencer Black hasn’t received less than 87% of a vote since 1992 and now has more than $146,000 in his campaign account.

In 2002, Republican Steve Nass accepted $7,013 in public funding and went on to beat Leroy Watson 87% to 13%. In 2006, the Whitewater-area representative took $5,963 and beat a self-described “naturist,” Scott Woods, 66% to 34%.

If the fund helps anyone, it seems, it is incumbents, the legislators who have the power to make the laws and amend them. Or get rid of them, but don’t.

One byproduct of heavy favorites receiving the taxpayer funded grant is that they often use the grant to build their campaign accounts to levels that make them unbeatable. More on Spencer Black:

Spencer Black, the longtime Democratic representative from Madison, has repeatedly taken the public subsidy while building up big surpluses in his campaign account. First elected to the Assembly in 1984, Black has been reelected a dozen times. Up until 2000 (when opponents just gave up and stopped running against him), he applied for the tax dollars almost every time he ran.

Records from the first few elections have been lost by the state, but he was given more than $18,000 in taxpayer dollars in 1992, 1994 and 1996 alone, according to the Government Accountability Board (GAB). Those were years in which Black built his campaign fund up from a surplus of $39,000 in 1992 to more than $100,000 by 1997.

So the same fund that was supposed to make campaigns more competitive actually strengthens incumbents to the point where they can’t be beaten.

Finally, it’s important to point out that while the dollar amounts may not be large, there is a significant band of people urging the program be expanded. The article mentions Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign saying the program is failing because it’s not big enough. So this should serve as a lesson to those who think even more taxpayer money should be used for campaigns – something the public clearly opposes.

Read the full report here.

Redefining “The Public”

In July, having completed the Herculean task of driving the state deeper into deficit, Wisconsin lawmakers sought respite in their home districts for the summer.  Now they have returned, to take up much weightier issues, most notably figuring out who gets the run the  Department of Natural Resources.

Currently, the DNR secretary is picked by the Governor to oversee the state’s environmental policy.  This wasn’t always the case, as the DNR Board of Supervisors used to pick the secretary (George Meyer was the last board-appointed leader, until Governor Tommy Thompson signed a law giving himself the authority to pick.)

Now, with Democrats in full control of all branches of state government, environmentalists are applying a full court press to have the law changed back to board-controlled appointment power.  They believe that if the board picks the secretary, somehow they will be less “political” than if the governor picks.  Because, as we all know, the Sierra Club (who would essentially then control the board) is above politics.

Today, several environmental groups (Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin Conservation Congress) issued a press release which proves the “public” supports granting the DNR board appointment authority.  The list contains the names of 270 various conservation groups across the state who are supposedly on board with the law change (and as we know, the Legislature generally does whatever the Wisconsin Muzzleloaders Association asks.)

Of course, some would consider these groups attempting to influence state legislation to be “special interest groups.”  But not campaign finance watchdog Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign – who has already come out in favor of the legislation.  You see, the the WDC, “special interests” are merely “groups that push conservative legislation.”  Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is a special interest – the Sierra Club is “the public.”

McCabe has spent years railing against groups who conceal their campaign donors and attempt to influence state legislation.  Yet here we have a list of 270 such groups attempting to gain control of the DNR secretary, and you’ll hear deafening silence from the so-called “good government” groups. (It has been pointed out time and again on this blog that McCabe’s group itself is a special interest that conceals its donors and attempts to push state legislation – such as a single payer health program.)

So I anxiously await the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign press release decrying this special interest influence, and calling on the Wisconsin Sharptailed Grouse Society to open their books for public scrutiny.  Holding my breath.

It just goes to show that this bill has nothing to do with saving the air, water, and fish, and has everything to do with which humans get to order us around.  There’s a long way between appointment authority and cleaner water.

Can the Government Ban Books?

From the CATO Institute:

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Smaller Government – The Ultimate Ethics Reform

Just like damp, warm areas in your house are conducive to breeding cockroaches, more invasive government intervention creates a welcome environment for corruption and sleaze.  So says Daniel J. Mitchell from the Cato Institute in this instructive video:

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As Mitchell points out, with every ethics scandal we have, we simply pass more and more laws to serve as a band-aid to cover the problem – when in fact, it’s government intervention itself that is causing the damage.  The only way to scale back pay-for-play and behind the scenes dealmaking is to limit the areas that government (and therefore the lobbying community) actually controls.

It All Comes Back to Campaign Finance

I really, sincerely, hadn’t planned on writing a lot about the current Supreme Court race in Wisconsin.  But the stench has just gotten too thick – I can’t help but comment.  I’m like one of those idiot criminals who shows up at the police station because they offer a free honey ham, then gets arrested.  I just can’t help but get suckered in.

The other day, I wrote that because liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was in the lead, you weren’t hearing all the calls for campaign finance reform that you normally would if a conservative were running strong.  It appears I may have spoken a bit too soon, as I underestimated the ability of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram to twist the story to their liking.  This appeared on the same day as my post:

At a forum addressing judicial campaign financing in Eau Claire last week, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Director Mike McCabe pointed out the similarities in education (the same law school), professional experience (circuit court judges) and legal temperament (self-described “judicial conservatives”) between Koschnick and Gableman. Yet Gableman was able to defeat an incumbent Supreme Court justice last year while Koschnick is considered a long shot this year.

McCabe says the likely difference in electoral outcome has to do with dollar signs, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

Yes – who could disagree with such air-tight logic?

Or, it could be the fact that Shirley Abrahamson has spent 30 years on the court, as opposed to Louis Butler’s 10 minutes.  Perhaps they forgot that Butler had lost an election (to Diane Sykes), but was then installed on the court by Governor Doyle when a vacancy opened up – essentially overturning the results of the election.  Sometimes voters bristle at being told they’re not smart enough to pick their judges.  Regardless, I think the fact that Shirley Abrahamson has become an institution in Wisconsin government might have just a little to do with her electoral strength.

Furthermore, it was because of the Butler/Gableman race that Abrahamson switched tactics, portraying herself as “tough on crime,” and “protecting our families.”  This was a lesson Butler was slow to learn – and it may have cost him his seat.  Abrahamson immediately recognized that her left flank was exposed on the crime issue, and tried to fortify it up front.  (A year ago, I suggested she release a video of her chasing down and clubbing a burglar in her campaign commercials – oddly, my advice went unheeded.)

In fact, the goo-goos have it exactly backward.  They believe Koschnick is a longshot because he had trouble raising money.  In reality, it’s the other way around – Koschnick had trouble raising money because he’s perceived by conservatives as a longshot.  And this isn’t because he’s a bad guy or a terrible judge – the groups that normally help conservative judges didn’t think he had a legitimate shot at beating a Supreme Court justice that joined the bench before man had invented utensils.

But this displays the desperation of the campaign finance reform crowd – when there’s a race where the candidates spend too much, money is the problem.  When there’s a campaign where candidates spend too little, money is the problem.  They seem to think they’ve got it surrounded – when in fact, there are a hundred things that explain what’s happening more clearly than merely campaign finance.

Might Want to Call the GAB, Shirley

Last Friday night, the NCAA Sweet 16 was in full swing.  Those sitting at home were treated to a thrilling game, as Michigan State was able to beat Kansas, on their way eventually to the Final Four.  If you were one of the three people watching the “We the People” Supreme Court candidates debate that night, my apologies.  Not because you missed the game, but because you were probably chained up in someone’s basement and being forced to watch in order to extract information from you.  If you called for “more waterboarding” in exchange for not having to watch Shirley Abrahamson debate Randy Koschnick, it would be entirely understood.

However, the debate did contain one interesting exchange.  At one point, Koschnick called on Abrahamson to condemn the ads being run against him by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, a third-party entity that supports the Chief Justice.  Koschnick urged the ads to be removed from the air, as they contained “false” and “inflammatory” information.  (Ed. note – there is nothing in the ad that even approaches a reason for it to be taken down.)  

Abrahamson bristled at the suggestion, citing Koschnick’s own words, when he said

“I think the answer to the problem of offensive or troublesome speech is more speech.  If somebody has said something that is not true or inaccurate, the answer, rather than trying to suppress that speech, is to allow candidates and others to come out with a response and put the truth out there and let the public decide.”  

Then, on her own, Abrahamson punctuated the quote with her own “more speech.”  In her answer in response to the next question, the Chief Justice again hectored Koschnick for wanting to “stop speech.”


Of course, Abrahamson has long been a supporter of public financing of judicial elections – which, of course, is an attempt to “stop speech” by limiting the amount of money spent on campaigns for the Supreme Court.  Naturally, Abrahamson didn’t feel strongly enough about the corrupting force of campaign contributions to limit them in her own campaign, as a report out yesterday showed she has outspent Koschnick at a 19-to-1 rate.  In the most recent fundraising period, Abrahamson raised $290,000, in contrast with Koschnick’s $70,000.  Suddenly, a Chief Justice who has been hostile to the corrupting force of money (and the speech that comes with it) has turned into Antonin Scalia when her own campaign needs the boost.

In the likely event she wins, this newly discovered defender of free speech rights might want to pick up a newspaper to observe the First Amendment vandalism being perpetrated by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, who has introduced a rule granting themselves the sole authority to regulate political speech during elections.  As such, it will be an unelected board of bureaucrats – not even elected officials – who will be the “speech police” come campaign time, determing what can and can’t be said during the course of elections.

When I was a kid, one of the most popular t-shirts around declared the wearer of the shirt to be “FBI” – “Female Body Inspector.”  The power the GAB has granted itself is akin to declaring yourself the state’s authority on the female form – and should be about as legally as binding.  In fact, the GAB has inspired me, and today I declare myself the state’s sole arbiter of who can wear spandex in public.  I’ll send my phony rule over to the the Legislature pronto.

It is almost certain that the GAB’s not-constitutional-by-a-longshot-free-speech-suppression-rule is going to end up in front of Abrahamson’s Court in the near future.  Let’s just hope she’s “Campaign Shirley, Defender of Vigorous Public Debate,” and not “Too Many Conservatives Are Getting Elected, So We Need to Fund Campaigns With Taxpayer Dollars” Shirley.

Side note:  During the Gableman-Ziegler races, you couldn’t open a state newspaper editorial page without reading about the need for reforming judicial campaign financing – now, with Abrahamson comfortably in the lead, you hear… nothing.  Crickets.

Who’s Telling the Truth About the Court?

These days, it’s hard to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to agree on anything.  But back in December of 2007, the Court stood united in its push for public financing of Supreme Court elections.  Earlier in the year, conservative Annette Ziegler had run a successful race against liberal attorney  Linda Clifford that featured substantial advertising from interested third party groups.  In their zeal to restrict these types of ads, the Court issued a letter calling for full public financing of court races, saying “Judges must not only be fair, neutral, impartial and non-partisan but also should be so perceived by the public.”


The Ziegler race was followed up in 2008 by Mike Gableman’s race against incumbent Justice Louis Butler – a race which featured ads that clearly obfuscated the role of a Supreme Court justice.  The ads – run primarily by the candidates themselves – portrayed the Supreme Court as some kind of law enforcement board, intent on keeping criminals in prison.  (We denounced this tactic at the time.)

Following Gableman’s victory, ideas started to flow on how to get court elections back to focusing on what the court actually does.  The Wisconsin State Journal has been on a Don-Quixote like quest to eliminate judicial elections altogether, believing voters aren’t capable of picking their own justices.

But the issue of public financing of Court elections still lingers.  Public financing supporters believe that shutting down independent ads and leaving the electioneering up to the candidates themselves will leave voters with a much clearer understanding of the role of the Supreme Court.

To those people, I offer this television ad from Chief Justice and current candidate Shirley Abrahamson:

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As you can see, Chief Justice Abrahamson is going to help you wiggle out of your bad mortgage – regardless of any kind of contract you signed, or regardless of whether any case dealing with your mortgage is actually before the Court.  Also, Abrahamson is “protecting consumers from abuse,” whatever that means.  She “stands up for all of us.”  Then, the denouement, from Abrahamson’s own mouth:

“The best thing a judge can do is to help people.  That’s what I do.”

Is she serious?  The best thing a judge can do is to apply the law as written to certain facts of a case.  The judge’s role isn’t to “stand up” for anyone.  “Standing up” for people means writing your own new laws to generate a favorable outcome – whether or not it actually ends up hurting people in the long run.  (Incidentally, where are these cases that “help people?”  Doesn’t being a judge necessarily mean resolving disputes in which some party eventually ends up not being “helped?”)

So I dare anyone to look at  that ad and tell me with a straight face that leaving campaigning up to the candidates themselves is going to give anyone a clearer idea of what the Court does.  If anything, Abrahamson’s own ad leaves voters with a cloudier understanding of her role as a judge – this is an ad that could easily be run by a candidate for legislative office.  That ad does more to undermine Abrahamson’s own “impartiality” than any ad by a third party could.

All public financing will do will be to shut out advertising that might actually set the record straight on Abrahamson’s record. So it’s no wonder Abrahamson favors public financing in Supreme Court races -with it in place, she could continue to exploit people with bad mortgages with impunity.

What if an Election Fell in the Woods…

This is just too good.

For years, “good government” groups have been kicking and screaming about independent entities running their own television ads during campaign season.  (Commonly referred to as “free speech.”)  Groups like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (a registered lobbying organization) have unironically argued that this gives lobbying organizations too much influence, and have pushed for a change in the law to ban such ads.

A letter WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe sent to the state Government Accountability Board urging them to regulate these ads sums it up best:

Five special interest groups spent close to $8 million in the last two state Supreme Court races on what most of the groups insist on calling “issue advocacy.” To voters across the state, it meant truckloads of money were spent on loads of TV ads smearing the candidates. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called the campaigning “tawdry” and “despicable.” A State Bar Association judicial campaign integrity committee called the advertising “deliberately misleading.”

Sounds pretty bad.

But here’s the thing – when groups spend all this money on these TV ads, it has the effect of educating the public about the candidates.  UW-Madison political scientist Ken Goldstein has conducted studies that show voters are more knowledgeable about the candidates when these ads run, and voter turnout is higher in these races, as more people are aware a campaign is actually going on.  So clearly, banning these ads makes voters both less informed, and less likely to vote.

Spending in Supreme Court races has become the main battleground against these kinds of ads, especially since conservative judges have routinely been winning.  This, despite the fact that the most misleading and egregious ad in the last Supreme Court campaign was run by one of the candidates himself, eventual winner Mike Gableman.  Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, had routinely spent millions of dollars to help promote candidates they believed represented their interests – but in the current election for the Supreme Court, they have sat idly by, keeping their advertising to themselves.

And, of course, you can guess who the first to complain about WMC’s lack of spending is:

There’s a state Supreme Court election in a few weeks, and many people don’t even know it’s happening.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s Mike McCabe says its partly due to a lack of advertising.

“This has been so under the radar that my fear is that people don’t know much about this race, don’t know hardly anything about the challenger.”

McCabe says he’s happy the contest focuses on the issues, but that doesn’t help if no one shows up to vote.

“It’s not a good thing to have a statewide election and have nobody notice.”

So here’s the guy who’s spent his whole career complaining about the toxicity of money in politics complaining about the lack of money in politics.  Would he now be happier if WMC was spending boatloads of money educating voters around the state?  Apparently, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign knows exactly how much information voters need to make informed choices about their candidates.

As it stands, the Government Accountability Board is moving forward with its plan to shut down these third-party ads.  In doing so, as Mike McCabe has apparently figured out, it will be assuring us fewer voters and a less educated electorate.  That’s our state government – protecting us from an educated public discussion of our candidates.

The Democrats’ Anti-Constitutional Power Grab

The spending bill introduced by Democrats last week is either a “stimulus” bill or a “budget adjustment” bill, depending on what purpose they need it to serve based on the conversation they are having at the time.  (Ironically, the bill is neither, as it won’t stimulate anything and only fills in a fraction of the 2008-09 deficit.)  But one portion of the bill deserves extra scrutiny, as it turns our representative form of government completely on its head in order to facilitate the most naked of power grabs.

With hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds headed Wisconsin’s way, Democrats want to spend it as quickly as possible, with minimal oversight.  In order to make this happen, they have included a provision that virtually gives sole stimulus fund spending authority to three people: Governor Jim Doyle, and Represenative Mark Pocan and Senator Mark Miller, who chair the Joint Finance Committee for their respective houses.  (Had Miller not stabbed Senator Judy Robson in the back and voted to remove her as Majority Leader last session, it would be someone else spending the money on behalf of the Senate.  To the victor goes the spoils.)

Article VIII of the Wisconsin Constitution specifically states that “no money shall be paid out of the treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.”  In other words, when money is spent, it must be approved by the full legislature in the form of a law that is debated in an open and transparent way.  The Constitution goes on to require that appropriation bills receive a roll call vote, rather than a voice vote.

Yet this new bill destroys that process as laid out by our state’s founders.  Instead, the new bill gives two legislators the ability to decide how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in Wisconsin. Since this authority will be granted to these two legislative leaders by a full vote of the Legislature, it appears that it is certainly a constitutional arrogation of authority.  But the end result – consolidating such major spending decisions in the hands of so few people – while not “unconstitutional,” can certainly be classified as “anti-constitutional.”  It goes against the entire principle of open government that the Constitution prescribes.

There’s a good reason appropriation bills must go through the full legislative process.  They get a committee hearing, complete with testimony, and a committee vote.  In committee, there’s an opportunity to amend the bill if necessary.  Then the bill goes to the full floor of the legislative house for a vote, where it is debated, and can once again be amended by the full Senate or Assembly.  Then, after it makes it through one house, it begins the process anew in the other house, where it gets even more debate and tweaking.

Not only does this process allow for public input and bill correction, it spreads the responsibility for the bill over the entire legislature.  Each elected official has buy-in, and can say the interests of their constituents was represented.  Yet under this new consolidation plan, only two legislators are accountable to anyone.  As a result, the new scheme is replete with opportunities for mismanagement and corruption.

Ask the people of Illinois what happens when immense governmental decisions are consolidated in the hands of a few people.  The alleged Blagojevich swap meet for Barack Obama’s senate seat happens.  Favors are handed out with no transparency, no debate, and no public involvement.  If we were to write a recipe that virtually guaranteed as much corruption as possible in the “stimulus” process, we couldn’t do any better than the Democrats’ plan before us today.  A teaspoon of closed government here, a dash of undue campaign contributor influence there, and a heaping helping of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money all make for a toxic casserole taxpayers are going to have to swallow.  And like it.

Naturally, Wisconsin’s “good government” groups like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause will be highly critical of Democrats for this pro-corruption, anti-transparency power grab.  And on the same day, a tap-dancing dolphin will be elected to the governorship.

It is often said that the only thing worse than a government that acts too slow is a government that acts too fast.  And we’re all about to learn that lesson the hard way.

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