Profiles in Plutocracy

The people in charge of Wisconsin government have got shame licked. The more shameful their behavior, the more shameless they are about it. Evidently it all balances out in their minds. Profiles in Plutocracy

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

November 24, 2003

The people in charge of Wisconsin government have got shame licked. The more shameful their behavior, the more shameless they are about it. Evidently it all balances out in their minds.

If you would rather not ponder such ethical gymnastics, you had best fast forward through the autumn of 2003.

With jobs vanishing by the thousands throughout Wisconsin, state lawmakers hauled out weapons of mass distraction – concealed weapons, that is. Never mind that two-thirds of the people are telling pollster after pollster they do not want neighbors much less strangers walking around with guns stuffed in their undies. Their “elected representatives” – eager to please the powerful gun lobby – pushed to legalize hidden guns anyway.

With books cooked Enron style to make the state budget appear balanced, the state Legislature turned its attention to the pressing task of clarifying the always-confusing law defining marriage as a union between a husband and wife.

With a growing legion scared to death that they are a pink slip away from not being able to take their kids to the doctor, state legislators moved quickly to allay the growing fear of…shopping cart theft.

Since when does shopping cart theft trump health care reform on the public’s to-do list? Since the grocers and other backers of the bill greased the legislative skids with more than $1 million in campaign contributions to legislators, including nearly $184,000 to the bill’s author and sponsors.

With the nation at war against terrorism, Wisconsin lawmakers should have known that fighting crime so trivial would not do. But it took a helpful nudge from retail gas dealers and related businesses who gave legislators more than $1.2 million to convince the Legislature to broaden its fall anti-crime agenda to include cracking down on gas station drive-offs.

Captains of industry who have showered legislators with $7 million in campaign contributions saw a faltering economy as a perfect opening for more deregulation of their enterprises. But they weren’t born yesterday. They know the “Business Deregulation Act of 2003” would be about as popular as next season’s Brewers’ payroll. So they gave their pet bill a name that sets Orwell’s grave to trembling – the “Job Creation Act.”

To create untold numbers of jobs, the bill does things like allow trout streams and lakebeds to be dredged without any opportunity for public comment or DNR oversight. This recipe for economic development runs on for 114 pages.

Who in the Legislature gets to claim pride of authorship? Well, technically, no one. Legislative leaders John Gard and Mary Panzer, themselves marinated in nearly $300,000 worth of campaign donations from backers of the bill, let industry lobbyists write the bill. It is not the first time. A senior bill drafter with the Legislature says it is now common practice for lobbyists to write their own bills at the Capitol.

While legislators were busy dancing around issues the public wants addressed, Dick Strong and his mutual fund company were playing fast and loose with investors’ money. New York’s attorney general – not the state Ethics Board or Wisconsin’s College Savings Program Board – blew the whistle.

Members of the College Savings Program Board stood behind Strong even as rumors of illegal trading turned into a criminal investigation. That is hardly surprising considering the board’s chair, Senator Alberta Darling, is a longtime recipient of campaign contributions from Dick Strong, his wife and employees of his company. Darling told the Associated Press her “conscience is very clear” because she had not taken Strong money since she joined the board in 2000. It turns out that was a lie. Campaign finance records show Darling received contributions from Strong employees as recently as January 28 of this year.

Darling is not the only board member with a flagrant conflict of interest. Senator Jeff Plale also has been fed a steady diet of contributions from Strong. In fact, he is a former Strong employee and to this day has much of his net worth tied up in Strong funds. Sort of puts the board’s sweetheart deal with Strong to manage the state’s EdVest program – and its loyalty to the embattled company now that it faces criminal charges – in a new light, doesn’t it?

Thorny conflicts of interest among state officials extend well beyond the Capitol grounds. University of Wisconsin System President Katharine Lyall and the Board of Regents made headlines as they came under fire for approving pay increases for senior executives in a secret meeting. What has not made headlines, however, is the fact that Lyall supplements her $304,980 annual salary with an estimated $210,000 in compensation for serving on three corporate boards.

Among the corporate boards on which Lyall sits is Alliant Energy, which was paid $2.5 million by the UW in 2003 and stands to receive more than $6 million as project manager for a new power plant on the UW-Madison campus under a no-bid contract. Lyall also is on the board of M&I Corporation, which has pioneered the use of tax dodges that have enabled the bank to avoid paying any corporate income tax in Wisconsin, a source of funding for the UW.

While five current and former legislators are facing felony corruption charges – a first in Wisconsin history – major campaign and ethics reforms are nowhere to be found on the Legislature’s agenda this fall. Three years after 90 percent of voters in a statewide referendum said they want campaign reform, the people are still waiting for their own elected representatives to stop debating concealed weapons or the definition of marriage or shopping cart theft long enough to give us back our democracy.

Rep. Steve Freese, who controls the fate of reform in the Assembly as chair of the elections committee, has not so much as held a public hearing let alone a vote this session on campaign finance reform. He told the Capital Times that every time he thinks about getting around to it “we’d have the Democracy Campaign do something stupid – like writing letters to the editor.” He told the newspaper such actions were “extreme tactics.”

Like I said, the folks in charge of state government have got shame licked.