A New Chapter

In this update: 1. What will the new Legislature’s story be? 2. GAB operating under gag order 3. A bit of lightheartedness in dark times A New Chapter 

Email date: 1/6/09

Happy New Year!

In this update:
1. What will the new Legislature’s story be?
2. GAB operating under gag order
3. A bit of lightheartedness in dark times

A new state Legislature was sworn in yesterday. The most pressing question of the moment is how newly seated lawmakers will deal with a collapsing economy and hemorrhaging state finances. But over the long haul, the bigger question is how this new batch of elected state officials do the public’s business on a whole host of issues.

When the history books are written, this will go down as one of the most corrupt periods in Wisconsin’s political history. It is possible this new Legislature’s actions will be chronicled in a chapter describing how corrupt practices were tolerated and perpetuated. Or it is possible the historians will write about today’s lawmakers in a chapter entitled "Turning Point."

One day Wisconsin will come back to its traditions of clean, open and honest government. We will soon find out whether the legislators sworn in yesterday will be the ones who prompt this turnaround, or whether it will be their replacements or their replacements’ replacements.

The new Assembly majority leader insists he and his colleagues will be the ones who make change happen. Among other things, he told the Appleton Post-Crescent the Legislature "will be acting on a meaningful campaign finance reform for the first time in a generation. Will it be the first thing we act on? No, but it will happen."

Actions will speak soon enough, and then this Legislature’s story will be known.

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The new Government Accountability Board got off to a fast start in its first year of operation and did quite a few good things, most notably standing up to the special interests and voting to restore meaning to state laws requiring full disclosure of electioneering and limiting campaign contributions.

The GAB also imposed stiff penalties on wealthy donors flagged by the Democracy Campaign for breaking campaign donation limitations. Democratic donor John Brogan of Green Bay and his wife Gisela were both fined $1,350 for the law violation, while Republican donor Patricia Kern of Waukesha was fined $1,100. In the past, the old Elections Board would routinely let violators of the same law off with no fine or would occasionally impose penalties amounting to a tiny fraction of the punishment allowed under the law.

The board has done its best to bring its actions to the attention of the public. But it is swimming upstream. The law that created the new agency forces it to keep some of its most important work under a cloak of secrecy. The new Legislature should change that.

A flurry of editorials in state newspapers echo that sentiment, including this one from the Wisconsin State Journal.

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OK, this is funny.