4 Get ‘Nero Award’ for Blocking Reform

Gard, Panzer, Doyle & Freese Cited for ‘Fiddling While Dome Burns’

September 10, 2003

Madison - Wisconsin’s governor and three top legislative leaders were given “Nero Awards” today by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for ignoring public demands for reform and failing to provide leadership needed to clean up a Capitol engulfed in political scandal.

The awards are named for the 1st Century Roman Emperor Nero, who was famously said to have "fiddled while Rome burned."

Four key figures in Wisconsin politics - Assembly Speaker John Gard, Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, Governor Jim Doyle and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Freese - earned the award because they hold positions giving them unique control over the fate of reform legislation that has been stonewalled for the first eight months of the 2003 legislative session.

This is the second year WDC has given out the award. Gard, Panzer, Doyle and Freese join infamous political figures who received the first annual award in June 2002 including indicted legislators Chuck Chvala and Scott Jensen, indicted ex-lawmaker Brian Burke, former Governor Scott McCallum, and the state Elections Board.

In a 2000 referendum, 90 percent of Wisconsin voters supported campaign finance reform. Three years later, lawmakers continue to block reform legislation despite a criminal investigation that has yielded charges against five of the state’s most powerful political leaders, including nearly four dozen felonies ranging from extortion and money laundering to illegal campaign contributions and criminal misconduct in public office. The state John Doe probe that produced these indictments has caught the eye of the FBI, prompting a federal investigation of illegal campaign activities.

"The voters overwhelmingly said they want campaign finance reform. For three years now, the politicians who are supposed to represent these voters have told them to save their breath," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said.

McCabe said all lawmakers bear responsibility for the failure to clean up corruption that has taken root at the Capitol, but the Nero Award recipients are most to blame.

"They are best positioned to provide leadership, and so far they have failed the people of Wisconsin," he said of Gard, Panzer, Doyle and Freese. "They also are uniquely positioned to obstruct progress toward reform, and there is no question reform is being obstructed."

The leading comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation, Senate Bill 12, was introduced by a bipartisan group of 24 legislative sponsors on January 28. It received a public hearing on February 12, but no further action has been taken. Legislation to reform the state Elections Board and Ethics Board, Senate Bill 11, was introduced by a bipartisan group of 14 sponsors on January 28. It received a public hearing on March 26 and was approved by the Senate Education, Ethics and Elections Committee on a 6-1 vote on May 20. SB 11 has been available for scheduling for floor debate in the Senate ever since, but a vote has not yet been scheduled.

SB 12 would place spending limits on campaigns for state office, provide public financing grants to candidates who abide by the spending limits, tighten restrictions on campaign fundraising and require full disclosure of all election-related activities. SB 11 merges the Elections Board and Ethics Board into a single agency under the direction of a more politically independent board with expanded enforcement powers.

One campaign finance-related bill - Assembly Bill 1 - was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor. The new law makes it a felony for lawmakers to trade votes or official actions for campaign contributions. WDC supported the bill and even successfully initiated an amendment to strengthen it by expanding the "pay to play" ban to cover all public officials and candidates for office at the state or local level, not just legislators as originally proposed. But the law is a minor and largely symbolic step that will do little to stem the flow of special interest money into Wisconsin campaigns.

"It’s like treating glaucoma with Visine," McCabe said of the new law.

2003 Nero Awards