Year in Review: The assault on democracy in Wisconsin during 2015

Jay Heck

The corrupt status quo in Wisconsin not only prevailed this autumn, it triumphed completely. The majority party in the Assembly and Senate moved Wisconsin far back into the past, vanquishing more than 100 years of transparency and sensible limits on special interest political money — reforms which, in part, date back to Gov. Robert M. La Follette Sr.

This assault on democracy, while supported and encouraged by Gov. Scott Walker, was largely the handiwork of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and a cadre of hyper-partisan Republican legislators whose lust for total and absolute political power trumps any lingering respect they may have for bipartisanship and for open, accountable and honest state government.

The destruction of the 8-year-old, nonpartisan Government Accountability Board was based on discredited charges, false premises, character assassination and outright falsehoods. The enactment into law of both the GAB destruction (AB 388) and campaign finance deform (AB 387) measures, in combination with the recently enacted law to exempt political crimes from being investigated under the state’s John Doe process, will combine to allow political corruption to take root and flourish in Wisconsin. 

Interestingly, the 12 GOP state senators who voted to establish the GAB in 2007 voted to dismantle it in 2015. Nothing changed in the intervening eight years except the politics. Those 12 state senators were all for the GAB before they were against it.

The expiring legislative session will be remembered as one of the darkest chapters in our state’s 167-year history. It will go down in the books as the year that accountable and transparent state government was systematically dismantled in favor of hyper-partisan political advantage and revenge.

The entire process under which AB 387 and AB 388 were passed was defiantly undemocratic. They were first unveiled in October, fast-tracked through a single public hearing, then rammed through committees and rushed to the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly. The process was among the most abusive, disrespectful and secretive in the history of the Legislature.

Republican legislative proponents of AB 387/SB 292 have continually made the completely false and erroneous claim that they “had to” craft this legislation in order to bring Wisconsin into “compliance” with the Citizens United v. FEC decision of 2010 and because of other court decisions since. While some revisions to Wisconsin’s decades-old campaign finance law are necessary, the revisions in this legislation most certainly are not required. Coordination can still be limited and disclosure can certainly be required. 

The hyped-up charges and accusations made against longtime State Elections Board and GAB director Kevin Kennedy and against the retired judges on the board were vicious, scurrilous, hyperbolic, exaggerated and largely just untrue. But the right-wing echo chamber faithfully repeated the misinformation, the real facts be damned.

And there were other, more practical, hyper-partisan political reasons to destroy the GAB. Revenge and the unquenchable thirst for absolute control over a state agency that had the independent power to investigate political corruption trumped the truth. The GAB destruction legislation:

• Gets rid of the six nonpartisan judges and replaces them with two six-member commissions, one for elections and one for ethics, composed of partisan political appointees — three Republicans and three Democrats. That all but guarantees tied votes and, therefore, gridlock and inaction.

• Gets rid of Kevin Kennedy, who has overseen elections and campaign finance law in Wisconsin for more than 30 years, capably and in a scrupulously nonpartisan manner. He’ll be replaced by two administrators selected by partisan leaders.

• Most significantly, it eliminates the independent funding for investigations into possible political corruption. This was the most critical and central provision of the creation of the GAB in 2007. Without it, the GAB is under the complete control of the legislative leadership.

An independent stream of funding for investigations acted as a huge preventative tool for corruption in the Capitol. Without it, the GAB will be feared by no one and ignored by most. It will be transformed into another Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation — a toothless, ineffective state agency with no ability to effectively enforce election, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws. And it will likely be utilized as a tool to aid in the achievement of the partisan political goals of the leaders of the Legislature and the governor.

These profoundly anti-democratic measures are not the sum total of the majority party’s assault on good government. Renewed attempts to weaken and even eviscerate our state’s open records laws, as well as to destroy the long effective and respected nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau with partisan political appointees in all state agencies, is in the works for early 2016.

There may be more.

Thomas Jefferson said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

And so it is that Wisconsinites must not only be more vigilant to stave off further erosion of our democratic institutions, we must also organize, register to vote, turn out and work as never before to take back Wisconsin from those who seek to destroy it.

Jay Heck has been the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin since 1996. CC/WI is the state’s largest nonpartisan citizens reform political advocacy organization with more than 6,000 members and activists in its network. Call 608-256-2682 or visit commoncausewisconsin.org.