In the wake of his failed bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker didn’t skip a beat in his career-long pursuit of the concentration of power in the hands of a private few. Within two weeks of turning his attention back to Wisconsin, Walker organized Republican legislative leaders to fast track a trio of bills that sets fair campaign finance rules, election integrity, and oversight back to the time when the Captains of Industry (a.k.a. Robber Barons) wielded their political control.
Last Friday afternoon, Walker signed into law a measure that puts an end to John Doe investigations for wide variety of political crimes ranging from bribery and extortion to false swearing and campaign finance violations. Walker’s willingness to do whatever it takes to hasten the flow of public resources into private hands and to intensify the exploitation of labor and natural resources by billionaire corporations has resulted in two John Doe criminal probes, one of which landed six of his former aides and associates in jail.
While Act 64 doesn’t actually legalize political corruption and bribery—those crimes still exist in state statutes—it does effectively decriminalize them by taking away the only effective tool for prosecuting them under Wisconsin law.
In 2002 the John Doe process helped convict five lawmakers and several of their aides for using state resources for campaign purposes. That Caucus Scandal revealed that the state ethics and elections oversight boards were not able to fulfill their watchdog roles adequately. In 2008, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) comprised of retired judges was established to oversee Wisconsin’s campaign finance, elections, ethics, and lobbying laws.
One of the two other bills in what legislative Democrats are calling “The Corrupt Politician Protection Act,” dissolves the GAB and replaces it with two partisan commissions. The third bill, AB387, allows unlimited campaign contributions to political parties and legislative committees, as well as open coordination between candidates’ campaigns and dark money special interest groups, with no disclosure or meaningful reporting requirements.
During debate in the Assembly last week, Republicans mounted an Orwellian defense of the bills claiming they increase transparency and accountability. Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D - Milton) countered that, together with the elimination of John Doe, the bills “deliver the kill shot to our democracy.”
Gordon Hintz (D - Oshkosh) put the bills in the context of 4½ years of GOP control of all three branches of Wisconsin government, reciting a litany of anti-transparency and anti-accountability bills championed by the GOP:
“If you don’t like journalists poking around on who’s writing your bills or the public submitting open records requests, get rid of open records. You don’t like getting caught giving taxpayer-funded giveaways to political donors? Get rid of political reporting. Don’t like being overseen by a nonpartisan election board? Create some fake conspiracy and use that as an excuse to dismantle the board. Don’t like the scathing audits of the WEDC or the positive audit of the Government Accountability Board? Now we have a proposal to get rid of the Legislative Audit Bureau. That’s an idea. “Don’t like unions? Got it. Eliminate collective bargaining rights and we’ll do Right to Work. Don’t like the sitting Chief Justice? Well, we’ll change the law so a new one can be appointed. Don’t like the DNR Board overseeing our natural resources? Well, we’ll give the partisan DNR Secretary absolute power (but we did correct that). Don’t like the state Superintendent pointing out that your cuts to public school funding are hurting the classrooms? We’ll make him a political appointee. And yes, my colleague from Madison, if you don’t like the scientists at the DNR saying that a giant open pit mine will destroy drinking water, well, fire the scientists.”
Many of the controversial laws passed by the state legislature during Walker’s term as Governor—partisan redistricting, voter id requirements, abortion restrictions, curbs on collective bargaining rights for public workers—have been bogged down in lengthy court battles.
But the GOP’s ace in the hole has always been the Wisconsin Supreme Court, stacked with a majority of justices who received a combined $10 million in contributions from the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative dark money group that was at the center of the second John Doe investigation into potentially illegal coordination between that group and Walker’s 2012 recall election campaign.
Should AB 387 be signed into law, such coordination will become legal. Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D – Beloit) gave an example of the impacts that kind of coordination could have on candidates:
“Imagine being chair of the Campaign and Elections Committee, who rushed this bill through, who said she didn’t have enough time to hold a public hearing on a nonpartisan redistricting bill. Imagine you are sitting at home jotting down talking points from Sean Hannity or Charlie Sykes when this ad comes on: As a former County Clerk and election official, the representative from the 68th used to value our sacred American tradition of democracy and free and fair elections. But now, as lawsuit after lawsuit piles up over highly partisan district lines, the representative from the 68th won’t even allow discussion of nonpartisan alternatives in her committee. What is she afraid of? As lobbyists and special interests in Madison shower her with attention, has the representative from the 68th found life as a politician too good to let go? She and her friends in Madison don’t want to face real accountability in a fair election, so they created devious and distorted districts designed to lock themselves in power. Has the representative from the 68th become as crooked as the district lines she draws? Call her today and tell her to hold a hearing on redistricting reform. If she won’t hold a hearing, let’s hold her accountable for refusing to listen to us. “My friends, the only difference between this hypothetical ad and the one that could easily happen if Republicans pass this bill, is that a real ad would mention the representative from the 68th by name.”
All of the Assembly Democrats recused themselves from voting on the campaign finance bill because, they claimed, their campaigns could benefit from the measure, and it is unethical to vote on something for which a member has an interest in financial gain. The bill passed 61-0, while the GAB dissolution bill passed 58-39 with 3 Republicans joining all of the Democrats in voting no.
After the Assembly adjourned, I overheard one of the three Republican legislators who voted against the GAB dissolution say to a staffer:
"We just made one of the most unbelievable, colossal mistakes in history."
In the aftermath of this near complete deregulation of campaign finance and accountability, the GOP will be taking more steps to concentrate political and administrative power within one agent of the state bureaucracy: The Department of Administration. An overhaul of the Civil Service hiring system for all state workers is already underway, and a deregulation of Workers Compensation law is in the works.
Three years ago I wrote about the corporate rot eating away at the protections of people and natural resources of Wisconsin. As corporations such as Enbridge Energy become further emboldened by the latest GOP rollbacks of fair public process,grassroots activists and others who care will have to step up efforts to protect land and water, democratic institutions, and each other.