Still Fiddling While the Dome Burns

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s 2nd Annual Nero Awards


Hand it to the leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature. They have an amazingly high tolerance for public humiliation. On their watch, a state once known for clean, open and progressive government has been disgraced. Five of the Legislature’s most powerful leaders have been charged with nearly four dozen felonies ranging from extortion and money laundering to illegal campaign contributions and criminal misconduct in public office. The state John Doe probe that produced these indictments caught the eye of the FBI, prompting a federal investigation of illegal campaign activities. National media including the New York TimesWashington Post and Chicago Tribune have taken turns chronicling Wisconsin’s fall from political grace.

The leaders' response? Increased campaign fund raising. Despite the fact that the chase for campaign cash is the common thread running through all the criminal charges, top lawmakers exhibited their boundless capacity for shamelessness by raising 73 percent more for their leadership campaign committees during budget deliberations than was raised by leadership committees during the previous budget process.

While intensifying the chase for campaign cash, legislative leaders also imposed a lockdown on campaign finance reform legislation. In a 2000 referendum, 90 percent of Wisconsin voters said they want campaign finance reform. Three years later, voters are still waiting for the Legislature and the governor to deliver reforms the electorate desires.

All of the elected state officials representing these voters bear some responsibility and share some of the blame for the degradation of the ethical climate in Wisconsin government and for the failure to enact political reforms the voters clearly want. But four - Assembly Speaker John GardSenate Majority Leader Mary PanzerGovernor Jim Doyle and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Freese - hold positions that give them unique control over the fate of campaign finance reform legislation. As a result, these four bear special responsibility for the stonewalling of campaign reform measures that could lift the cloud of corruption shrouding the Capitol. Because Gard, Panzer, Doyle and Freese are best positioned to lead efforts to restore integrity to the political process in Wisconsin and have failed to do so, they have earned the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s 2003 Nero Award.

The award is named for the self-indulgent and corrupt 1st Century Roman emperor. One of the most famous events of Nero’s reign was the fire of Rome in 64 AD. While the fire spread and raged furiously for nine days, destroying much of the empire’s greatest city, the musically inclined Nero is famously said to have "fiddled while Rome burned."

With debate on campaign finance reform legislation stymied at the same time the Capitol is engulfed in a political scandal serious enough to produce state criminal charges and a federal investigation, the symbolic parallels to Nero’s reign are alarmingly obvious.


Assembly Speaker John GardAssembly Speaker John Gard

A close confidant of indicted former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, Gard hardly distanced himself from Jensen after the ex-speaker was charged with three felonies. After becoming the new speaker, Gard named Jensen chairman of two important committees after the 2002 election, making Jensen one of only two Assembly Republicans given more than one chairmanship of a standing Assembly committee in the new Legislature - the other being Gard himself. Gard also gave key committee chairmanships to indicted colleagues Steve Foti and Bonnie Ladwig. And he added a top Jensen aide, Steve Baas, to his own staff even after Baas was charged and found guilty of criminal conduct over a physical altercation with a TV news reporter investigating the involvement of Jensen’s staff in a smear campaign against a former state representative.

Speaker Gard rushed legislation to the floor of the Assembly this session making it more difficult to vote by requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot. But the lower house has taken no action on comprehensive campaign reform. Under Gard’s leadership, there has been less activity on campaign reform legislation this session than last session. Then, the Assembly at least passed a watered-down reform measure (2001 Assembly Bill 843) before blocking the formation of a conference committee to work out the differences between the Assembly-approved bill and a more ambitious Senate-passed plan.

The new speaker’s hostility toward campaign reform is not the only thing he has in common with the former speaker. Gard also has taken a page out of Jensen’s playbook and is using his position as Assembly leader to zealously solicit campaign money. The speaker was far and away the Assembly’s leading fundraiser during the budget process, raising $92,305 in the first half of 2003 - more than twice as much as any other Assembly member and a 182 percent increase over his own fundraising during the previous budget process when he was co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. The Republican Assembly Campaign Committee that Gard controls also raised 106 percent more during budget deliberations than it collected during the last budget process.

Gard scheduled at least two fundraisers in April and May when the budget was in his hands - one in Minneapolis and the other at the home of a Janesville road builder within days of Gard’s announcement of a Republican budget proposal that called for $800 million more in spending for short- and long-term road building than Governor Jim Doyle’s proposal (which itself called for spending a third more than the national average on road construction).

Last session, as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, Gard was a key barrier to movement of reform legislation. In a speech on the Assembly floor in February 2002, Gard pledged to use his position on the finance committee to block any campaign finance reform legislation that included public financing of campaigns. Indeed, for the previous four months he had been doing just that. The leading campaign reform bill authored by Neenah Republican Mike Ellis had been referred to the Joint Finance Committee in October and languished in Gard’s committee. Finally, in the waning days of the session when Senate leaders decided to allow a vote on the Ellis bill, they had to convene a Senate Finance Committee meeting to take up the bill and refer it to the floor because of Gard’s obstructionism.

Gard also played a key role on a conference committee negotiating a compromise budget repair bill that included a sham campaign finance reform plan containing a blatant poison pill ensuring the plan would never take effect. Inserted in the measure was a flagrantly unconstitutional provision requiring interest groups to give 30 days advance notice of planned election activities. When the committee included this feature in the plan, they were aware that a five-day advance notice provision in a campaign finance law passed in Florida had already been ruled unconstitutional. The committee also included a "nonseverability" clause to void the entire plan if any part of it was struck down in court. A federal judge struck down the law as expected - about a month after last November’s election.

Senate Majority Leader Mary PanzerSenate Majority Leader Mary Panzer

Like Gard, Senator Panzer fast-tracked legislation this session to require voters to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot, but has kept comprehensive campaign reform legislation under wraps. The leading campaign reform initiative, Senate Bill 12, remains lodged in committee. Legislation reforming the state Elections Board and Ethics Board, Senate Bill 11, won committee approval in May but Panzer has taken no steps to schedule it for a vote in the full Senate.

Also like Gard, Panzer has focused far more on soliciting campaign donations than on fixing the state’s broken campaign finance system and restoring Wisconsin’s once-proud reputation for clean government. Her leadership committee, the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, raised a whopping 209 percent more during budget deliberations this session than it did during the previous budget process - the biggest increase of any of the four partisan leadership committees.

Panzer sat on the eight-member budget conference committee that crafted the poison pill-laced campaign reform plan that was overturned by a federal judge in December 2002.

Governor Jim DoyleGovernor Jim Doyle

During his campaign for governor and as he was taking office, Doyle said all the right things about campaign finance reform and ethics reform. For example:

"It’s a new day in Wisconsin.. Because we're going to change the way we do business in Madison.. It means changing how we do the business of government itself - from public financing of elections to a more transparent and accountable budget process." - victory speech, November 5, 2002

"To me, the single most important Wisconsin value is integrity. Restoring integrity to the Capitol has to be our top priority." - victory speech, November 5, 2002

"No matter what else we accomplish in the next four years, it won’t be enough unless the people of Wisconsin believe their elected officials are honest and unless all of us are proud of our government." - November 5, 2002, as quoted in The Capital Times

"At a time when too many Americans are feeling more and more disillusioned with government, their elected leaders and public service - I am sad to say that perhaps no state has fallen farther, fallen faster than Wisconsin." - inaugural address, January 6, 2003

"Public integrity is Wisconsin’s proudest tradition, and it’s time to bring it back. That starts with this challenge: Let’s enact a campaign finance reform law, and let’s do it this session." - state of the state address, January 30, 2003

In his state of the state speech, Doyle praised Senators Ellis and Erpenbach for offering reform ideas, then added: "And let’s pass the Impartial Justice bill so campaigns for our state’s highest court are not controlled by big money and special interests."

And, finally, this from Doyle’s inaugural address:

"From here on out, restoring Wisconsin’s reputation for clean and honest government will be a sacred commitment, not an empty and neglected rhetorical flourish."

The rhetorical flourish of the campaign and the first days in office has given way to silence and inaction on political reform. Hardly a word has been spoken on the topic since the state of the state speech. No proposals have been advanced. No special sessions on the issue have been called. Perhaps never before has a "top priority" and "sacred commitment" been given less attention and inspired less action.

Responding to a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign candidate survey in August 2002, Doyle pledged that, if elected, he would  "work to see that comprehensive campaign finance reforms are in place for the 2004 election and that new restrictions on campaign fundraising are in effect for the entire 2003-2004 legislative session." He has taken no steps to make good on that promise.

Doyle further pledged to "publicly endorse, actively work to advance and sign into law comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation as strong or stronger than 2001 Senate Bill 104." This session’s Senate Bill 12 certainly matches that description. The governor has done nothing to advance SB 12 or any other initiative that fits the bill.

Doyle’s campaign finance reform pledge was detailed and specific, supporting reform legislation that:

  • Creates spending limits for all state races that sharply reduce campaign spending in the highest-spending races and level the playing field for all candidates;
  • Provides public financing grants equal to at least 45% of the spending limits to candidates who agree to limit their spending;
  • Provides a guaranteed source of revenue that fully funds the cost of the public financing system;
  • Provides matching grants directly to candidates who agree to limit their spending but who face opponents who refuse to abide by spending limits or who have independent campaigns run against them by special interest groups;
  • Bans campaign fundraising by elected state officials during the state budget process and prohibits campaign fundraisers in Dane County any time the legislature is in session;
  • Includes an explicit legal prohibition on "pay to play" activity (trading official action or inaction for campaign donations);
  • Cuts the limits on the size of allowable campaign contributions in half and further reduces the contribution limits for candidates who do not agree to abide by campaign spending limits;
  • Requires disclosure of the identity of groups that run "issue ads" within 60 days of an election that refer to a clearly identified candidate on the ballot in that election, and reporting of the amount spent and the source of money used to pay for the communications for or against the candidate;
  • Bases disclosure of issue ads and other forms of independent campaigns by special interest groups on the established legal tradition in Wisconsin requiring campaign activities to be reported when money is spent or an obligation to spend money is incurred;
  • Eliminates the partisan legislative campaign committees under the control of legislative leaders;
  • Prevents the creation of "SuperPACs" by banning transfers of funds from one political action committee (PAC) to another;
  • Includes at least limited "severability" so that if one element of the bill is found unconstitutional, other reform provisions will remain in effect.

Of all these promises, Doyle has acted on only one - the largely symbolic "pay to play" ban. He signed the ban into law in August, making it a felony for public officials or candidates for office at the state or local level to trade votes or other official actions for campaign contributions.

In addition to his numerous campaign finance reform promises, Doyle pledged to "publicly endorse, actively work to advance and sign into law reforms of the structure of the state Elections Board that replace the current board with a nonpartisan citizen board and that provide the board with the resources to investigate possible violations and enforce Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws." The governor has done nothing to deliver on that promise.

Acknowledging that the state Ethics Board currently does not have a budget for investigation expenses and must seek funding from the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance each time it contemplates an ethics investigation, Doyle promised to "work to create an independent source of funding for ethics investigations." He did not include such funding in his proposed budget.

Doyle pledged to "work to strengthen the state ethics code and lobbying law to: 1) bolster the Ethics Board’s enforcement powers; 2) curb the effects of campaign contributions from lobbyists and the organizations the lobbyists represent; 3) raise standards of conduct expected of state and local government officials; 4) strengthen lobbying laws; and 5) enhance requirements that government officials identify personal financial interests that might conflict with their government responsibilities." He has not done so.

And finally, Doyle pledged to "work to create a nonpartisan citizen commission to reapportion legislative and congressional districts in Wisconsin" and "oppose the use of public funds to retain private attorneys to represent the interests of a particular partisan legislative caucus or lawmaker during the redistricting process." He has taken no steps to fulfill the pledge.

Wisconsin is a strong-governor state. Governors here not only have the power of the bully pulpit, but also extensive constitutional and institutional powers that enable them to wield far more influence over state lawmaking than their peers in most other states. The governor can call the Legislature into special session and set the agenda for that session. And Wisconsin’s governor has broad partial veto authority that can be used not only to refashion legislation adopted by the Legislature but also as bargaining leverage during negotiations with legislators. Governor Doyle has not used his formidable powers to advance campaign finance and ethics reforms that he has called a "top priority" and "sacred commitment."

Doyle raised $562,954 during his first six months in office, while the state budget was in play.

 Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve FreeseAssembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Freese

Few lawmakers have gone to greater lengths to wrap themselves in the cloak of reform than Steve Freese. But while his words are reminiscent of John McCain, his record on reform resembles Tom DeLay’s.

As chairman of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee, Representative Freese is a key gatekeeper on campaign finance reform legislation. He has kept the gate locked. While quickly shepherding photo ID legislation making it harder to vote to the floor of the Assembly early this session, he has taken no steps to develop comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation in his committee for eight months.

Freese was coy about his intentions during the 2002 election campaign, refusing to answer a detailed candidate survey by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign about his position on campaign finance reform and ethics reform legislation. (Statewide, 103 candidates for the Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor responded to the survey.)

His actions so far this session and during his last reelection campaign mirror his track record from previous sessions. In the early days of last session, Freese promised to cosponsor a comprehensive campaign finance reform proposal if sponsors could be found in both parties in both houses. But when Republican and Democratic sponsors were identified in both the Assembly and Senate, he reneged on his commitment. He participated in the press conference announcing the bipartisan proposal - appearing to support the bill - but never added his name to the list of cosponsors and did nothing to advance it through his committee.

Comprehensive reform legislation was introduced and referred to his committee in March 2001. For over 11 months, he did not permit his committee to vote on any comprehensive reform proposals. Once it was clear the Senate was taking action on reform legislation, Freese pledged to work in his committee to develop a bipartisan reform package. With considerable fanfare, a bipartisan working group was assembled under Freese’s direction. The working group was a charade. Democratic members were given no meaningful opportunity to shape the bill. Rather, the watered-down measure was crafted behind closed doors by Freese, his former colleague Marc Duff, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

The bill (AB 843) was then rushed to the floor of the Assembly with just over two weeks remaining in the Legislature’s regular session. Freese voted for the bill, but then voted twice within two days to block the formation of a conference committee to work out the differences between AB 843 and the Senate-passed SB 104. When minority party members forced a third vote on convening a conference committee, Freese offered an amendment that created a parliamentary condition on the formation of a conference that even the Legislature’s own legal counsel said was unnecessary. With Freese’s amendment attached, the Assembly passed the conference committee resolution. The practical effect of the amendment was to continue to block the final negotiations needed to reach agreement on campaign reform, but give Assembly Republicans a phony roll call vote enabling them to claim they had voted to form a conference committee.

When campaign finance reform resurfaced at the end of last session during negotiations over a budget repair bill, Freese was a key architect of the sham reform plan that was included in the budget adjustment package and was designed to be struck down in court. Although he was not a member of the eight-member conference committee, he was brought to the table by the conferees to craft the campaign reform plan.

In the 1999 session, Freese co-sponsored a comprehensive campaign reform bill with now-indicted former Senator Brian Burke that called for public financing grants covering 50 percent of campaign costs. Freese later opposed reform legislation offered by other legislators in subsequent sessions calling for 45 percent public financing, deeming the proposals too costly.

Two facts shed light on Freese’s pro-reform posturing and anti-reform actions. In a 2000 referendum, over 90 percent of voters in the counties in Freese’s district (94 percent in Sauk County and 91 percent in Iowa and Lafayette counties) supported campaign finance reform. But the reforms voters in his district clearly want would wipe out the sizable competitive advantage he enjoys under the current system. Freese’s fundraising prowess enabled him to outspend his 2002 opponent by more than a 3-1 margin and he outspent his 2000 opponent by more than 6-1.

 2004 Nero Awards • 2002 Nero Awards

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