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DIVIDED AMERICA: Rosy economic averages bypass many in US

Dozens of FedEx jets queue up for takeoff at the airport here in Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Street, the heart of the music district, hums with tourists. Yet the empty storefronts in Memphis’ moribund downtown and the cash-advance shops strewn near its highways tell another story.

It’s a tale of two cities, all in one place. And it’s a tale of two Americas: the one that national averages indicate has all but recovered from the Great Recession and the one lost in the statistics.

The pattern is evident in cities and towns across America, from Memphis to Colorado Springs, Colorado, from Wichita to Jacksonville: The national numbers aren’t capturing the experience of many typical people in typical communities.

         This story is part of Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.

A key reason is that pay and wealth are flowing disproportionately to the rich, skewing the data used to measure economic health — and producing an economy on paper that most Americans don’t recognize in their own lives. That disconnect has fueled much of the frustration and anxiety that have propelled the insurgent presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Again and again, primary voters who were most worried about the economy told pollsters that they had cast their ballots for Trump or Sanders, according to Edison Research, which conducted the surveys on behalf of The Associated Press and television networks.

Trump’s candidacy, in particular, has been driven by support in some of the most economically distressed regions in the country, where jobs have been automated, eliminated, or moved to other states and countries. It’s in these places that the outsider message of an unconventional candidate promising a return to the way things used to be resonates most.

Mike Williams earns $22 an hour as a maintenance worker at an Owens-Corning factory, along with health care and retirement benefits. But after a recent raise, his hourly pay has only recently returned to where it was a decade ago, when he worked as a welder.

“I feel like I’m going backward rather than forward,” Williams, 51, said on a recent afternoon after finishing his shift.

In March, Williams voted for Trump in the state’s primary, which the real estate billionaire won easily. One reason he backed Trump, he said, is he feels less secure than in the past, when more manufacturing work was available.

“I remember when you could quit a job today and go to work somewhere else tomorrow,” Williams said.

After seven years of national economic expansion _ to the point where the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates again _ the depth of such insecurity across America has caught many observers off guard.

Said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust and former economist at the Federal Reserve: “The averages certainly don’t tell the whole story.”

Consider incomes for the average U.S. household. They ticked up 0.7 percent from 2008 to 2014, after taking inflation into account. But even that scant increase reflected mainly the rise in income for the richest tenth of households, which pulled up the average. For most others, incomes actually decreased _ as much as 6 percent for the bottom 20 percent, at a time when the economy was mostly recovering.

In Memphis, hiring resumed after the recession and the unemployment rate has declined to match the national figure of 5 percent. Yet those figures, too, obscure as much as they reveal: Many of the new jobs, in Memphis and elsewhere, are in lower-paying industries and are more likely to be part time or temporary.

In Millington, a Memphis suburb where Trump held a rally in February at a military airfield, residents complain that most of the available jobs are in the fast-food chains that dot Highway 51, the main thoroughfare.

The U.S. economy has added a healthy average of roughly 200,000 jobs a month since 2011. Yet most have been either high-paying or low-paying positions. By the end of 2015, the nation still had fewer middle-income jobs than it did before the recession, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

That reflects what economists call the “hollowing out” of the workforce, as traditional mid-level positions such as office administrators, bookkeepers, and factory assembly-line workers are cut in recessions and never fully recover their previous levels of employment.

In Memphis, jobs in the one-third lowest-paying industries, such as retail, restaurants and hotels, are the only category to have fully recovered from the recession, according to Moody’s Analytics. Higher- and middle-paying jobs still trail their pre-recession levels.

In the first half of the recovery, jobs grew 5.6 percent nationwide. Yet in the wealthiest one-fifth of zip codes, hiring jumped 11.2 percent, according to the Economic Innovation Group think tank. For the rest of the country, total jobs increased just 3.3 percent.

“It’s hard to find an average city,” Tannenbaum says.

The same is true for households. These data suggest that the post-World War II trend of a steadily growing middle class, lifted by broader national prosperity, is reversing.

Slightly fewer than half of adults now fall in the middle-class camp, according to the Pew Research Center, a shift that followed four decades of decline. In 1971, 61 percent of households were middle class, according to Pew, which defines middle class as income between two-thirds and double the median household income.

Chris Rice, 29, has worked steadily in the Memphis region for the past 10 years, all at temporary jobs. Rice most recently worked as a forklift driver for Electrolux and for CEVA Logistics, a warehouse firm. The CEVA job ended after the company lost a contract to distribute Microsoft’s X-Box.

Rice said he was hopeful of getting a new temp job at a plant owned by printer manufacturer Brother International.

Still, “I’d love to have a permanent job,” he said. “I’m tired of going from temp agency to temp agency when there’s no work.”

Judge dismisses minimum-wage lawsuit against Gov. Walker

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that sought to force an increase in Wisconsin’s minimum wage.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Dane County Judge Rhonda Lanford dismissed the lawsuit.

The progressive group Wisconsin Jobs Now had helped bring the suit against the Walker administration as part of an ongoing effort to force an increase in the state’s minimum wage.

The group and individual workers sought to use a little-known clause in Wisconsin law to raise the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and pin Walker down on the issue during his 2014 re-election campaign.

Wisconsin Jobs spokeswoman Lisa Lucas says an appeal is unlikely.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice had no immediate comment.

Scott Walker’s jobs agency gave out $124 million without review

More than two dozen awards worth more than $124 million were made to companies without a formal staff review by the underwriting department of Gov. Scott Walker’s economic development agency, it reported this week.

Documents detailing the awards were made public late on June 19 in advance of a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation board meeting on July 20 to discuss one troubled unsecured loan that went to a failing company owned by a Walker donor.

The Republican Walker, who is expected to formally launch a presidential campaign in mid-July, has been hounded by troubles with the quasi-private jobs agency he created shortly after taking office in 2011.

An internal review released showed that WEDC gave out 27 award contracts to 24 companies between July 2011 and June 2013 without staff review, which WEDC said was not required at the time. Those were discovered during a review of 371 awards WEDC made in its first two years of operation.

Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly’s Democratic leader, called the situation “outrageous.” He said there are many unanswered questions about how many loans were approved over underwriters’ objections.

“I am not at all confident we have even a fraction of the troubling details board members need in order to carry out our fiduciary responsibility,” he said. “This is yet another example of how senior WEDC officials have kept the board and Wisconsin taxpayers in the dark about serious problems surrounding the governor’s jobs agency.”

Some of the companies on the list are owned or affiliated with donors to Walker’s political campaigns.

Kenneth C. Stock, the chief executive of KCS International, a luxury boat builder in Oconto, donated $8,500 to Walker. Members of the Sonnentag family, which owns County Materials, have donated at least $36,000 to Walker. Laona-based WD Parket LLC, is a fifth-generation company run by the Connor family, longtime Republican donors.

The three highest un-reviewed awards all came through the enterprise zone program. The largest, $62.5 million, went to Kohl’s Department Stores for an expansion of its corporate headquarters on June 28, 2012, for a project that was expected to create 3,000 jobs but that has created just 473 so far.

The next highest was $18 million to Kestrel Aircraft Company for an expected 665 jobs, but just 24 have been created. The third highest was $15 million to Plexus Corp. to create 350 jobs, but none have been created, according to a tally provided by WEDC.

Of the 27 awards, just over 6,100 jobs were expected to be created, but to date only about 2,100 have been. Nearly 8,900 jobs have been retained, according to WEDC. The projects made about $490 million in investment, the report said.

One of the 27 unsecured awards was a $500,000 loan to the now-defunct Milwaukee construction company Building Committee Inc. that was collapsing at the time and created no jobs. That was among several loans questioned by state auditors that led Walker in May to call for scrapping the loan program.

The loan to BCI came after its owner William Minahan had given Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign a last-minute $10,000 donation on Election Day — the maximum individual contribution.

A memo from Jake Kuester, the vice president of credit and risk at WEDC, outlined what he called an “extensive review” of all awards the agency made worth more than $200,000 during its first two years in operation.

Kuester said employees of the former Department of Commerce, which WEDC replaced, said it was an “acceptable practice” for the secretary of the agency to approve an award with no formal written staff review “when the need to be flexible and reactive to a business’s needs warranted it. That practice was carried forward into WEDC during its early days.”

In July 2013, the WEDC board approved a new policy that included requiring a written review on all program awards. Since then, WEDC says it has approved more than 760 awards, all of which were reviewed by staff.

Walker budget raises taxes and fees by $43 million

An analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau finds that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would raise taxes and fees by $48 million.

The report released Monday also determines that Walker proposals to bolster tax collection would bring in nearly $125 million in additional revenue over the next two years.

Walker faces a budget shortfall of at least $2.2 billion. Although he’s greatly reduced education expenditures and other government services since taking office, he’s offset the resulting budget gains with massive tax cuts to the very wealthy and giveaways to his corporate backers. The red ink looks bad for Walker, who is a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

The bulk of the tax increase, $22 million, is Walker’s proposal to delay implementation of a law that expanded when retailers could claim certain sales tax reductions for bad debt.

That law is set to begin in July 2015 but Walker is calling for it not to take effect until 2017.

Walker’s budget would also increase annual state park vehicle admission fees by $3 and nightly camping fees by $2, raising $1.9 million annually.

New Koch super PAC reports donors

Some of the most powerful political committees faced a deadline this week to reveal how much cash they raised and spent during July, August and September.

It was likely to be one the last times before Nov. 4’s elections that voters could see how millions of dollars were flowing into outside campaign groups.

Only groups that report their money in three-month windows were filing on Oct. 15. Groups that file on a monthly basis, such as the Republican National Committee or the Democratic-backed Senate Majority PAC, face a deadline next week to report how much they raised in September.



The Republican Governors Association typically outpaces its Democratic rivals by an almost 2-to-1 margin. That changed in the last three months, with the Democratic Governors Association almost catching the GOP group.

Democrats’ committee to elect governors raised almost $20 million during the most recent quarter, taking its fundraising tally for the year to $47 million. It was a record three-month haul for the DGA, and double what it raised during the same period four years ago.

The Republican Governors Association, meanwhile, said it raised $21.5 million in the same time frame that ended Sept. 30. That’s significantly less than the $31 million it raised during the same period in 2010 and less than some were expecting from the group, which is led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The RGA says it remains on pace to spend $100 million this year. It has raised $72 million this year.

Neither group, however, revealed how much of that they had banked so it’s impossible to know how much each spent so far.

Voters will elect governors in 36 states on Nov. 4.


Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch tended to favor using tax-exempt organizations to influence voters’ opinions, but they are now starting to work as a political super PAC. That shift now means that they can be explicitly political — but they also have to disclose the donors who have helped them raise $15.6 million since June 13.

Combined, the Kochs gave $4 million directly to the newly-minted Freedom Partners Action Fund through trust funds that have their names listed.

The single biggest donor, however, was Robert Mercer. The New York hedge fund manager wrote a $2.5 million check to the group.

The group also collected $1 million from Arkansas-based Mountaire Corporation, one of the largest poultry producers in the United States. Company Chairman and CEO Ronald Cameron is a prominent donor to conservative causes and groups.

The group received $1 million from Diane Hendricks, the widow of Wisconsin roofing giant Ken Hendricks. Mrs. Hendricks is among the richest women in Wisconsin and an ally of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

And the group collected another $1 million from a trust in the name of trucking magnate Clarence Werner of Nebraska.

Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which is the hub of the Koch political network, gave almost $1 million to the super PAC. Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce does not disclose its donors but the Kochs are widely seen as patrons of that group, as well.


Two political committees with eyes on a Ben Carson for President campaign have raised a combined total of almost $5 million in the last three months, and have collected almost $14 million even before 2016 begins. And it’s mostly from small-dollar donors who could be persuaded to open their wallets again.

One Carson-linked group, the American Legacy PAC, raised more than $1.5 million during the three-month quarter that ended in October. Of that, $1.2 million came in donations of $200 or less.

Another, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, raised $3.3 million during the same period. Of that, $2.5 million came from donors who gave less than $200.

Carson is a retired neurosurgeon and a popular figure among his party’s conservative base, especially donors who give $10 here and there. He is mulling a White House run and his supporters are trying to encourage him to say yes to a campaign.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 2012, is involved in the American Legacy political committee.


A better-known potential 2016 contender, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was also getting encouragement from an outside group.

The Ready for Hillary super PAC raised $2 million from grassroots donors who want to see another Clinton presidency. Ready for Hillary capped donations at $25,000 per person because fundraising is not its focus.

If Clinton runs, the group would not be paying for the costly TV ads. A super PAC that formed for President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, Priorities USA, stands ready to fill that role for Clinton in the likely campaign.

Instead, Ready for Hillary has focused on building buzz for Clinton, selling merchandise with her likeness and collecting contact information to hand over to an expected campaign in 2016.

But laying the groundwork isn’t cheap. Ready for Hillary spent $2.1 million in the last three months.

Since it formed, Ready for Hillary has raised $6.2 million.

If Clinton decides to seek the Democratic nomination again, she would instantly be seen as the front-runner.


• The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political arm spent almost $12 million over the summer to help its favored candidates. Total spending from the Republican-leaning group now stands at $26 million.

• The conservative American Action Network made almost $1 million in outside spending to help like-minded candidates. The non-profit group was founded by super-donor Fred Malek and former Sen. Norm Coleman.

• Failed presidential contenders continued to be laden with debt. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, continues to carry $476,000 in red ink from his 2012 campaign. Gingrich, now a CNN contributor, continues to carry $4.7 million in debt from his 2012 effort.

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Raise the minimum wage now

The minimum wage reached its peak value in 1968 and has been falling ever since. If it had kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage would now stand at $10.74 per hour instead of $7.25.

Today, with less of the nation’s wealth going to workers than ever before and income inequality near record levels, it’s both morally and economically indefensible not to raise the federal and state minimum wages to at least $10.10, as Democrats have proposed and Republicans have blocked. 

Since the year began, 13 states have raised their minimum wages, as have numerous municipalities (including Milwaukee). On average, those states have seen higher job growth than states (like Wisconsin) that have kept their minimum wages at 2013 levels. 

Raising the minimum wage increases the standard of living for workers at the bottom of the pay scale and saves taxpayers costs associated with public assistance programs, such as food stamps. The majority of food stamps go to the working poor.

The liberal Center for American Progress found that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour nationally would save taxpayers $4.6 billion in spending on food stamps alone. 

Under the current minimum wage, highly profitable companies such as Walmart tell workers to apply for food stamps so they can afford to eat. Walmart and other minimum-wage-paying companies argue that if they had to pay employees a livable wage, then consumers’ prices would rise.

That argument amounts to a strange form of socialism whereby government protects the uber-rich from having to pay the cost of doing business and protects consumers from having to pay the actual cost of goods. We find it disturbingly hypocritical that conservatives rail that individuals should live from the fruit of their labor and not from government handouts, yet they support a minimum-wage policy that forces government to pick up the costs of private business in order to maintain corporate profits and hold down consumer prices. (A UC-Berkeley study on the effect of raising the minimum wage to $12 found that the average shopping trip to Walmart would cost 46 cents more and the average cost of a Big Mac would rise by a dime.)

Conservatives’ views on the minimum wage also put them in the position of opposing a policy that spurs both job growth and economic activity. Studies have demonstrated that raising the minimum wage puts more money into consumers’ pockets and thus increases economic activity in our consumer-based economy.

A study of the state of Washington is particularly revealing. At $9.32 an hour, the state’s minimum wage is the nation’s highest. Washington first adopted the nation’s highest minimum wage in 1998, and it’s been tied to inflation ever since, allowing for plenty of time to examine its impact.

A Bloomberg study found that in the 15 years following Washington’s initial minimum-wage increase, job growth averaged 0.8 percent annually — 0.3 of a percentage point above the national rate. Payrolls at Washington’s restaurants and bars, which are said to be the most vulnerable to higher wage costs, expanded by 21 percent. 

At the time Washington’s higher minimum wage was raised, opponents warned it would kill jobs and hurt the workers it was designed to help. It didn’t. It helped Washington’s economy, and it would help the nation’s.

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Political elite meet behind closed doors

For a few days in March, the American Enterprise Institute welcomed scores of business and political leaders to a private annual meeting at a resort on the Georgia coast. But only those who attended know what issues were discussed, strategies planned or promises made.

That’s because the ground rules for the invitation-only meeting required the participants’ confidentiality — even if some were elected leaders, discussing the public’s business.

An impressive array of the powerful attended the conservative think tank’s World Forum 2014, according to a printed program first disclosed in late April by the Center for Public Integrity. They included House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican congressional leaders; potential 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Apple CEO Tim Cook; beer magnate Pete Coors; TD Ameritrade founder-turned-billionaire-conservative activist Joe Ricketts; and executives from multiple venture-capital firms.

Similar events occur across the political spectrum, giving powerful people with deep pockets access that the average American could never hope to gain. Last month, a group of liberals held closed sessions in Chicago under the banner of Democracy Alliance to talk political strategy for progressive causes. Conservatives complained that the gathering included top environmentalists such as billionaire Tom Steyer, though a spokeswoman for Steyer told The Associated Press he did not attend.

And in early May, state lawmakers from around the country convened privately in Kansas City, Missouri, with business leaders as part of the corporate-financed American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The right-wing group’s task forces met to write recommended bills on topics from education and tax law to environmental regulation, labor law and criminal justice. ALEC’s legislative members will return home and sponsor the corporate-written bills in their statehouses.

Organizers and participants say the closed sessions allow public and private sector titans to discuss candidly topics ranging from foreign affairs and intelligence gathering to tax policy and elections strategy. But some open-government advocates say the events reduce confidence in the democratic process.

“This just creates more ways for mega-donors and elected officials to get together and talk about public policy behind closed doors,” said Miles Rapoport, the president of Common Cause, a national group that advocates for less concentration of political power.

Boehner, who is an ALEC member, according to the group’s website, told The Associated Press that such events are “very educational.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who attended the AEI forum in Georgia, said they promote “a free exchange of ideas.”

Rapoport, of Common Cause, said open sessions — like meetings of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures — don’t have to prevent candor.

At the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group that monitors influence in government, executive director Sheila Krumholz said politicians shouldn’t be criticized “for getting out from behind their desks and getting information.” Private meetings between “the regulators and the regulated” are part of the process, but the venue and the breadth of the closed gatherings matter, she argued.

“The concern is that these get-togethers offer opportunity for extended exposure in a relaxed setting,” she said. “It’s all very conducive to a
good rapport. That’s an invaluable advantage — and not one afforded to average constituents.”

Even some partisans criticize the secrecy — when the opposition is involved.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign attacked his potential general election rival, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, for attending the Democracy Alliance meeting in Chicago. McConnell accused Grimes of cozying up to wealthy environmentalist donors nationally while campaigning as a pro-coal Democrat back home.

Meanwhile, many Democrats have long vilified the operations of ALEC, responsible for promoting anti-immigrant laws, anti-environment measures and also “stand your ground” measures.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, an openly gay Democrat from Madison, joined ALEC when he was in the state Assembly. He attended the group’s meetings starting in 2008 and then discussed their agenda publicly — something participants often decline to do.

Closed meetings at ALEC and AEI, Pocan said, are “definitely not good for public policy, and they’re not good for democracy.”

ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling noted that the organization operates more openly in recent years, in part in reaction to critics who cried foul over ALEC members pushing conservative causes, such as limiting environmental regulations or penalties for violations — stances traced back to the group’s corporate and foundation backers.

Only legislators can submit proposed ALEC bills to a task force, he said, and the group now posts those proposals online before task forces meet. The end product is also posted after the meeting. ALEC also discloses its donors.

Putting all of that on paper, he said, is how critics can spot model legislation in a statehouse or know that ALEC has gotten money from conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the National Rifle Association and corporate giants like Shell, Texaco, Philip Morris and Union Pacific Railroad.

The American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile, maintains a code of secrecy around its annual meeting “to maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse,” Judy Mayka Stecker, an institute spokeswoman, said in an email.

Walker aides confirmed the governor’s attendance but declined further comment. 

Republican presidential hopefuls meet with donors on the sly

Far from public scrutiny, Republican presidential hopefuls, high-powered donors and other national political and business leaders gathered earlier this spring at a five-star resort in Georgia for a secretive meeting to discuss the midterm elections, foreign policy and the economy.

Details of the event organized by the think tank the American Enterprise Institute were revealed this week by the DC-based Center for Public Integrity, which obtained a copy of the program and other materials.

Attendees during the three-day meeting in early March at The Cloister in Sea Island, Ga., reportedly included such potential 2016 presidential hopefuls as Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Others listed on the program: former Vice President Dick Cheney; former CIA Director David Petraeus; major Republican donor and former Amway President Dick DeVos; TD Ameritrade founder Joe Rickets; GOP strategist Karl Rove; Apple CEO Tim Cook; and Scott Carpenter, the deputy director of Google Ideas.

Three Republicans – Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels – were slated to lead a discussion titled “How to Fix the States.”

Judy Mayka Stecker, a spokeswoman for the American Enterprise Institute, declined to answer specific questions about the “World Forum” gathering, which AEI has hosted annually since 1982. She described the meeting as “an informal gathering of leading thinkers from all ideological backgrounds to discuss challenges facing our world in economics, security and social welfare.”

In an email, Stecker said: “To maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse, the event is private and off the record, therefore we do not comment further on the content or attendees.”

The Center for Public Integrity reviewed travel documents filed with Congress and determined that 18 members of Congress attended the event, all but two of them Republicans. The only Democratic members of Congress there, according to the event program, were Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Some former and current Obama administration officials were also present. They included National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, who was on several panel discussions including one about the global economy and another national health policy.

Two potential 2016 presidential candidates – Walker and Ryan – both were interviewed at a breakfast event.

“Congressman Ryan thought it was important to hear from leading scholars, thinkers and lawmakers about the public policy issues facing our nation,” his spokesman Kevin Seifert said Wednesday. “The AEI World Forum provided a good opportunity to do that.”

Walker’s spokesman would only confirm that he attended the meeting.

Tea party Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin also attended and participated in a panel discussion on “the politics of health care, inequality, jobs and dissatisfaction.” His spokeswoman, Melinda Whitemarsh Schnell, said he felt it was important to attend “to have these kinds of frank conversations and meaningful discussions among leaders from the business, political, financial world.”

A report on the meeting first appeared in The Huffington Post.

Progressives rallying against Supreme Court ruling on campaign donor limits

Progressives across the country were preparing a series of protests against the U.S. Supreme Court ruling today (April 2) striking down in federal law the limits on overall contributions that the biggest of individual donors can make to candidates, parties and PACs.

More than 100 events were expected to take place following the morning announcement from Washington, according to Public Citizen, a progressive national watchdog group.

The ruling builds on the High Court decision in 2010, Citizens United, that cleared the way for corporations to invest in political campaigns.

The ruling today was 5-4 — a predicted split between conservatives and liberals — with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Court said the wealthiest contributors in American politics can invest millions into candidate and party coffers. Roberts wrote that the aggregate limits “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise ‘the most fundamental First Amendment activities;’”

The ruling did not remove limits on individual contributions to a candidate for president or Congress, which currently is $2,600 per election. But Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority, said in a separate writing that he would have removed all limits on campaign contributions.

In the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the Court’s majority had “eviscerated our nation’s campaign finance laws.”

The case began with a complaint from wealthy Alabama Republican Shaun McCutcheon, who challenged the overall limits imposed on his contributions in a two-year federal election cycle.

Protesters today were planning to rally in Albany, N.Y., under a banner that proclaimed “Big Democracy Is Not For Sale.”

Rallies also were being organized in Washington, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Tampa, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver.

There also was criticism from the business community. The American Sustainable Business Council, which represents more than 200,000 businesses, said: “The American Sustainable Business Council is deeply disappointed in the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC. Responsible business owners do not want more money in politics. They are concerned that excessive spending on elections  will continue to tilt the political debate in favor of dominant, legacy industries, which support damaging and unsustainable economic, social, and environmental policies.”

At the AFL-CIO, president Richard Trumka called the ruling “one of the most undemocratic and corrosive decisions in history.” 

Trumka said, “By striking down individual aggregate limits on First Amendment grounds, the Court has further tilted our political system in favor of corporations and the wealthy and against working people. Our founding fathers did not intend for our electoral process to be the facade for political auctions.”

In regional reaction, Lisa Subeck of United Wisconsin said the McCutcheon ruling “moves us another step closer to the outright legalization of bribery by allowing the wealthiest donors to pour unlimited amounts of money into the campaign coffers of our elected officials.

“Aggregate campaign finance limits provide a crucial safeguard against the corruption that too often plagues our political system. With today’s ruling, how can the public trust that our decision makers, and the policies they set, are not simply for sale to the highest bidder?”

The same morning that the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon, Wisconsinites learned that 13 communities in the state had voted in favor of overturning the 2010 Citizens United ruling. 

Non-binding referendums in support of a federal constitutional amendment on the issue were approved by voters in Waukesha, Wauwatosa, Elkhorn, Delavan, Lake Mills, Edgerton, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Waukakee, Belleville, DeForest, Windsor and Waterloo.

More than 40 communities in Wisconsin have backed overturning Citizens.

Subeck said the victories on April 1 “send a clear message to our elected officials in Madison and in Washington that we demand action to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy.”

Proposed resolution would allow vote on Citizens United in Wisconsin

The recently introduced Senate Joint Resolution 68 proposes a November ballot referendum asking Wisconsin voters whether their elected leaders should support a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.

Citizens United is the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for corporations to make unlimited contributions to campaigns and have unprecedented influence in U.S. elections. The Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group described it this way: “The ruling, based on the premises that corporations have the same constitutional rights as people and that money is equivalent to speech, opened the floodgates to the corrupting influence of big money in our democracy by granting corporations the power to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.”

The referendum, though not binding, has the support of dozens of grassroots groups in the state.

“Poll after poll has shown that overwhelming majorities, including Republicans, Democrats and Independents, all stand united in the concern that big money, wealthy donors are drowning out the voices of average Americans,” said Bruce Speight, WISPIRG director. “In a democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the strength of your voice or your right to representation. Senators should pass this resolution and give the people of Wisconsin a say in the future of our democracy.”

A report released by the WISPIRG Foundation and Demos entitled “Billion Dollar Democracy,” found that total spending on the 2012 election cycle topped $5.2 billion, with more than $1 billion coming from SuperPACs and similar groups. Nearly 60 percent of the total SuperPAC funding came from 159 people making contributions of at least $1 million.

Wisconsin has seen a similar trend in its elections.

Spending by candidates and interest groups in elections for state and federal offices totaled $391.9 million in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles — more than triple the $123.7 million spent in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, according to a review conducted by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. 

Since the 2010 ruling on Citizens United, 16 states and more than 500 municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the decision. In Wisconsin, 14 counties and municipalities have passed resolutions.