While the Dome Burns

By Mike McCabe, Executive Director

February 11, 2005

If you were watching the local news in the last week or so and didn't head to the fridge during the commercials, chances are you saw an animated ad featuring a fiddler with two heads – an elephant’s and a donkey’s – on top of a Capitol engulfed in flames.

If not, you can watch the ad here. Award-winning political cartoonist Mike Konopacki designed it for the Democracy Campaign to help us reach a broader audience with an indictment of dysfunctional state government and a call to action on behalf of political reform. We aired it on stations in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison, Eau Claire, La Crosse and Wausau.

The ad aims to say as much as you can in 30 seconds about how our state lawmakers play political games on phony wedge issues that only further divide us while burning issues like the 600,000 people in Wisconsin without health insurance, the 59% of African American men in Milwaukee who are unemployed and the political corruption scandal that produced four dozen felony charges are left unaddressed.

What we’re seeing so far in the new legislative session only serves to reinforce the ad’s commentary. Early indications point to a replay of last session’s sorry spectacle of hopelessly polarized political leaders avoiding the tough problems and delighting in scoring points on divisive social issues.

Time will again be wasted on yet another debate on legislation legalizing concealed weapons and another vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

But when it comes to getting the state’s finances in order, expect another state budget with enough Enron-style accounting tricks to make the books appear balanced while leaving a mammoth structural deficit in place.

Look for the state to continue paying more for failure than it invests in success, as it appears all but certain that the budget increase for prisons will once again be larger than the funding increase for the university system.

Glaring flaws in the state’s school finance system will once again be ignored despite the fact the current system simultaneously hamstrings schools financially and radicalizes homeowners tired of steadily rising property taxes. In place of an honest attempt to straighten out school finances will be another fruitless debate over adding a "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" to the state constitution. When that crashes and burns, lawmakers will then peddle a fake property tax freeze.

All the while, they'll be raising campaign money with reckless abandon. Legislative leaders are shaking down special interests at a record pace – 55% more in 2004 than in the comparable 2000 presidential election year.

Not to be outdone, Governor Doyle is raising money twice as fast as the former king of Wisconsin fundraising, Tommy Thompson. He’s using a familiar playbook. For example, right around the time the administration signed off on a controversial insurance company merger, Doyle got close to $30,000 from the firms' executives.

The evidence of a dysfunctional state government that inspired the Democracy Campaign’s TV ad is what also led the People’s Legislature to call for a top-to-bottom cleanup of the state political process.

But while Arizona’s John McCain and Wisconsin’s own Russ Feingold have worked up a full head of steam behind federal reform legislation to get rid of unlimited "soft money" donations once and for all and rein in so-called "527" groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the powers-that-be at Wisconsin’s State Capitol are steadfastly protecting what even Mississippi’s Trent Lott calls "sewer money."

Lott has thrown his weight behind the new push to close the sewer money pipeline at the federal level. But the state Elections Board has protected the soft money loophole in Wisconsin, repeatedly refusing to adopt proposed rules regulating soft money. And provisions closing the loophole were removed from the leading campaign finance reform bill that was recently reintroduced this session.

Think about it. Wisconsin’s leaders are now a step behind Trent Lott on the most important civil rights issue of our time.

If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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