November 28, 2010
Icons and banes
By Bill Kraus
Some of the major traps that new legislators would do well to avoid are more tricky than is obvious. A few words to the wise then and icons and banes.
Education is an icon. Everyone is in favor of education, generally. Not in all aspects or when it gets down to specifics however. It is safe to say that Voc-Tech is untouchable. It is so sacrosanct that nobody even mentions these schools run by un-elected boards that have the right to assess taxes. Don’t ask if this is constitutional. Don’t even bring it up for that matter.
Many special interests have succeeded in attaching their causes to education in hopes of achieving iconic status. Teachers have been the most successful at this. They may be less so in 2011. And the attachment is clearly frayed in Milwaukee.
School choice and charter schools are education ideas that have not yet reached iconic status but are closing in on it. Check with your legislative leaders before making a major move on either.
Jobs is an icon (not ungrammatical; "jobs" the issue is singular). Economic Development is what people mean when they say “jobs,” but this term has unacceptable connotations like putting public money into stealing, saving, or creating businesses which offer jobs.
Health care is an icon. As long as it isn’t welfare for the deadbeats and moochers who are better at beating health care support systems than the intended beneficiaries are at using them. It is safer to praise the private health care system than to subsidize it with public money.
Guns are inconic. The rationale seems to be that the people have to be armed and ready to repel the redcoats should they reappear. This is not about hunting. This is not about drive-by shootings. This is not about geographical differences. This is not about logic.
Tax increases are the major bane. This can be traced back to the otherwise harmless first George Bush and his unfortunate “read my lips” dictum which is widely regarded as costing having him a second term. Nobody since then has run the risk of raising taxes. The bane is not simply about increasing existing taxes. It includes extending taxes to areas and people who are currently exempt from them. Even the idea of re-sorting the revenue streams so one tax can be raised as long as there is a compensating decrease in other taxes and the total tax level stays the same is too dangerous to mess with. There is no tax known to man that doesn’t over burden the productive rich or further oppress the already oppressed poor. An old Brooklyn expression “forgedaboudit” applies.
Welfare is a bane. This is something that the public sector is particularly good at as contrasted with the aforementioned “jobs” icon for example. It cannot, however, shake the charge of supporting deadbeats and other undesirables. This label is contagious. When something like public financing of political campaigns is proposed and is labeled “welfare for politicians” it disappears without leaving a ripple.
A couple of examples of areas where the cautious do not or did not tread are privacy and transparency, which are not toxic anymore, to wit:
At one time it was not considered prudent to propose anything that intruded on anyone’s privacy. Protecting privacy was the almost exclusive province of a longtime legislator from central Wisconsin who is no longer around to snarl at any such initiatives.
The concepts involved in open government and disclosure proposals were almost iconic at one time, but with the decline in the power of the print press and the influence of the professional reformers the cries for action in this area can safely be ignored now.
Oh, yes, and good luck with the deficit.
November 21, 2010
Giving us a break
By Bill Kraus
With the distaste level about the way we conduct elections at a new high and the prospects of reforming or changing the system at a new low, it is good to be reminded that the next statewide election could be a welcome breath of fresh air.
The election will be non-partisan, which helps. The contest will be for a seat on the Supreme Court, which doesn’t hurt either.
More importantly, the election will usher in a whole new set of rules and funding sources for electing people to these important offices.
The newly enacted “impartial justice” law will be in effect for the first time. All candidates for this office will be eligible for a grant of public money designed to fully fund the cost of their campaigns if they agree to the spending limits set in the law.
This has two immediate effects.
It spares the candidates the onerous task of dialing for the dollars they need to fund their campaigns. This is good for them.
The other desirable side effect of public funding is that it removes the risk of these campaigns being tainted by unseemly or even seemly contributions. There will be no suspicion that the candidates are beholden to anyone or any interest group because of the campaign contributions received from either or both.
The more subtle benefit to us browbeaten voters is that the public funding, while adequate to the task at hand is not rich enough to buy television commercials in fire hose quantities or to pay for expensive annoyances like robo-calls.
Word of mouth, person-to-person presentations of candidates’ credentials and records may even lead to the demise of nasty, personal attacks as a campaign weapon. A resurrection of civility looms? It’s possible.
And best of all, beyond the relief from the excesses in spending and rancor of the 2010 campaigns, the 2011 spring election might be an example of what can, could, and should be done to reform and alter the election laws to make the 2012 elections less like those we just suffered through in 2010.
The fact that the impartial justice law does nothing to contain the gratuitous participation in the election by well funded and suspiciously motivated third parties may or may not be a problem.
If we are getting a clean contest on the candidates records and ideas instead of their personal shortcomings, the outsiders’ participation will be obvious and odious and should get much less attention and have much less effect than they did in the 2010 mudbath.
The federal courts may even take judicial notice of the process and rue the collateral damage done by their decisions in the last three centuries that have led to elections that enrich television stations and professional political managers, demean everyone else in the process, and disgust the rest of us.
November 14, 2010
Should they choose to accept it
By Bill Kraus
There are several things worth doing in Wisconsin that the Democrats didn’t do, wouldn’t do, or couldn’t do and that a Republican administration can do if it chooses to:
1. It can extend the sales tax to services which would be an increasingly important revenue source in a state that is increasingly reliant on its largely immobile service economy. The local accountant, lawyer, and newspaper is not going to flee to Illinois.
2. It can reshuffle the revenue streams to further increase the contributions of transaction taxes like those on sales and reduce the already onerous load being carried by the property taxes in particular.
3. It can re-order and redefine the property tax by turning it into a fee for specific services that are rendered on behalf of properties and their owners like fire, police, streets, garbage, even parks. A fee for services can and should apply to all properties including those owned by governments and charitable organizations, all of which get the benefits as fully as do home and business owners.
As, if, and when it does this, of course, it will have to move the responsibility for K-12 funding to something less onerous; an expanded and increased sales tax comes to mind. Also something only the GOP can do as long as it this is constructed as a tax shift and not a tax increase.
4. It can charterize state institutions of higher education that are tax-endowed but a long way from being tax-supported.
5. It can eliminate functions and offices that no longer play vital, useful, or necessary roles in state government. The offices of Secretary of State and State Treasurer come to mind. The legislative branch could even kick in by paring down the money the Legislature spends on itself and its staff.
6. It can create a department of education or expand the role of the Department of Public Instruction into policymaking. Education is the central responsibility assigned to the state government by the state's constitution. If the Department of Public Instruction ever had the responsibility for delivering on this mandate it doesn’t now and hasn’t for a very long time. Over the years Wisconsin has patched together a system where the Legislature is a kind of school board, the governor is the superintendent of schools, and the Department of Public Instruction does what the school board and the superintendent tells it to do and distributes whatever money comes from other places, like the federal government, according to the terms and conditions set by those money providers. It works, but it is hardly a textbook example of how anyone would organize to manage such a crucial and important function.
7. It can look anew at all the proposals that have been made over the years to decide how many governmental units the state should have, what each of them should do (if anything), whether different organization designs should be made available for dealing with the quite different demands of our major cities and our lightly populated northern counties, for example.
What the Republicans who are moving into a situation which can only be characterized as fiscally challenging can do is think anew and do things that would be unthinkable in calmer times.
What the Republicans can do is take on the status quo.
Not easy. Not fun. Doable.
November 7, 2010
Getting over rejection
By Bill Kraus
I have been in the habit of writing a post-election summary of things learned since the dim, dark 1980s.
This is both the shortest and possibly the most transitory.
How long will the lessons of 2010 last? How long will the voters put up with being treated like tubes of toothpaste or varieties of light beer?
Not much longer I hope, but for the nonce, here are the things that were learned, re-learned, or unlearned this year.
Rejection rules. Maybe it did in 2008 too. Maybe that election was as much a rejection of Bush as an acceptance of Obama. This year there are no maybes about it. Almost all the elections that are considered bellwethers were about rejecting the alleged perpetrators of everything that has gone wrong or whose fixes of what has gone wrong are more wrong than the wrongs they set out to correct.
The strategies are not quite anarchistic, but close. The chosen tactic is to be anti-government, anti-public sector, anti-public employees.
If any challenger ran a pro-anything campaign, one based on ideas or concrete proposals, I missed it. It was attack attack and more attack. And the attacks were overwhelmingly personal. As it happened I was in New York in the days leading up to November 2. The Wisconsin ads that appalled so many of us were bean bag compared to the poison gas being spewed in New York, Connecticut, and environs.
TV dominates. The rejection strategy is perfectly suited to the 30-second commercials that were so dominant in the major campaigns here and elsewhere.
Since TV is far and away the most expensive way to communicate, the need for money to run the rejection/personality campaigns reached new highs.
The suspicion that something is being bought with this money did not rise proportionately, and may have even dropped as a weary, browbeaten electorate absorbed the media punishment being inflicted by its friendly, local TV stations.
This is an unexplainable anomaly. Most people think the system is broken, corrupting, and wholly undemocratic. Most candidates had nothing to say about the deep, fetid waters they and their campaigns were swimming in.
Reform had a slim chance before 2010. It will be slimmer in 2011. The incumbents are or think they are the beneficiaries of a system they hate. The Supreme Court thinks corporations are people and money is speech. And the voters have increasingly subsided into spectatorship as the media and the pros who provide the raw material for it prosper.
On the good news front, I have heard that only one dead person won an election in 2010. This despite the repeated assertions by challengers and incumbents alike that their opponents were dead from the neck up at the very least.
The hope is, of course, that once the candidates who survived this bloodbath take office they will realize that they are now responsible for the well being and interests of all the people not just the yellow dogs who voted for them.
And perhaps the yellow dogs will come to understand that the people who beat the people they supported may not have been their favorites, but they won, and they are their governors and legislative representatives. As a former GOP leader in Wisconsin was heard to say in the 1990s, “He wasn’t my candidate, but he is my president, and I hope he succeeds.”