Incumbents Won’t Allow True Reform

If ever there was a "throw the bums out" kind of a year, this is it. Incumbents Won’t Allow True Reform

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

September 5, 2002

If ever there was a "throw the bums out" kind of a year, this is it.

There’s the faltering economy. Then there’s the billion-dollar state budget fiasco. If average voters haven't noticed the fiscal mismanagement in Madison, the New York bond houses sure have. Witness the state’s plummeting bond rating, which will make future state borrowing more expensive for taxpayers.

The response of the state legislature and the governor was a "budget reform" bill that is the single most irresponsible budget I've seen in 20-plus years of Capitol watching. They sold off $6 billion worth of tobacco settlement money for 20 cents on the dollar and spent it all in a single year. Instead of having $6 billion to spend on smoking prevention programs over the next 25 years, the tobacco settlement went up in smoke.

What our elected state officials did was the equivalent of teenagers blowing their college savings on an afternoon shopping spree at the mall.

What’s worse, the "solution" passed by the legislature and signed by the governor solves nothing. It sets us up for an even bigger budget mess that will have to be cleaned up after the election.

That’s not all. There’s the growing political corruption scandal that already has resulted in a prominent state senator being charged with 18 felonies. He won’t be the last indicted. It’s just the first tremor in a political earthquake.

For anyone who still remembers that Wisconsin used to be known for squeaky clean politics and sound public management, the urge to throw the current inhabitants of the Capitol out in the street sets in as soon as the gag reflex subsides. There’s just one problem. The current system is so rigged in favor of those in power that voters have been left with little leverage.

Thanks to a legislative redistricting plan that allowed the representatives to choose their voters long before voters are given a chance to choose their representatives, precious few races are remotely competitive. Layer on top of that a corrupt campaign finance system that gives current office holders a 14-to-1 cash advantage heading into the stretch drive of the 2002 campaign, and it’s clear why half of state legislative races are uncontested.

In 57 of 116 legislative races voters are deprived of even the most basic choice between at least two major party candidates. Even in the contested races, there’s not much real competition. Because of the grotesque fundraising edge incumbents enjoy, they are able to shout their message to voters while their challengers can’t afford to speak above a whisper. It’s a real stretch to call these democratic elections.

One of the ways the incumbents will use their bulging campaign war chests is to tell voters over and over again that they passed campaign finance reform. What they won’t tell you is that their reforms will never take effect because they deliberately put a self-destruct mechanism in the new law to make sure it blows up in court. Conveniently for them, that won’t happen until after the election. Then they'll blame the judges for reform’s demise.

Don’t believe a word of it. A more telling measure of our elected officials' true desire to clean up the cesspool at the Capitol is their response to questions the organization I work for – the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign – asked them recently.

We challenged all of the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and state legislature to go beyond vague statements of support for political reform and take a public stand on the specifics of campaign finance reform legislation as well as other key political reforms.

Overall, 80 percent of incumbents refused to respond. The silence of the vast majority of our elected representatives speaks volumes about their commitment to maintaining the corrupt status quo. They don’t want to tell voters who overwhelmingly want reform that they're against it. But they can’t bring themselves to commit to specific changes that would actually change a system that is rigged in their favor. So they took the fifth.

(You can see the responses of candidates in races affecting you here.)

It all goes to show that achieving real political reform amounts to taking a bone from a dog. The people in power will never be persuaded to give up their ill-gotten electoral gains voluntarily.

They'll have to be forced.