Caucus Deal

An Analysis

October 12, 2001

The state Elections Board voted late yesterday afternoon to approve an agreement with the state Ethics Board and legislative leaders that eliminates the scandal-plagued legislative caucuses but also beefs up the staffs available to leading lawmakers. The deal is a mixed bag, with some very good reforms and some real lemons.

The good:

1. The institution of the caucuses is abolished.

2. All legislative employees will have to follow tough new rules that will force them to precisely account for the days and hours they are working. Vacation and compensatory time will be much more closely monitored.

3. The investigations into illegal activity in the caucuses being conducted by the district attorneys in Dane and Milwaukee counties will continue. Criminal charges could be filed if their findings warrant it. The settlement only ends the investigations by the state Ethics Board and Elections Board into misuse of state resources. The Elections Board’s investigation into possible collusion between caucus staffers and an independent campaign group, Project Vote Informed, run by Todd Rongstad also will continue. Probes into apparent open records law violations by one of the caucuses that hid or destroyed incriminating evidence will continue as well.

The bad:

1. While 32 of 62 positions will be eliminated for a savings of about $2.6 million a year, the remaining staff positions will be moved to other locations. The worst aspect of this feature of the deal is that the four legislative leaders each will receive six additional staff members, twice what they have now.

One of the worst things about the caucuses is that they became enormously powerful instruments of control in the hands of legislative leaders. The leadership-controlled caucuses, together with leadership-run legislative campaign committees, played a central role in transforming the Wisconsin legislature from one of the most decentralized in the country to one of the most centrally controlled. Doubling the size of leaders’ staffs is hardly a remedy for that problem.

2. The fines imposed in the agreement would be paid by the legislative campaign committees, not any of the individuals responsible for the illegal activities. That means the leaders will hold fundraisers and shake down special interest donors for the $20,000 each caucus has to pay in fines. Missing is personal accountability for the abuse of taxpayer money and damage these incubators of political corruption have done to the health of our democracy.