The Government Accountability Board in Wisconsin was formed as a result of the ‘Caucus Scandal’ of 2002 when six top state legislative leaders--Republicans and Democrats--were investigated, brought to trial, and ultimately convicted of criminal misconduct in public office. Some served jail time and all were forced from office. Wisconsin’s reputation as a paragon of progressivism and good government for the people was sullied. The state was disgraced.
After years of intensive negotiation and planning, the Wisconsin Legislature passed, 2007 Act I with bipartisan support. Two former agencies, the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board, were abolished and the responsibilities of both former boards were placed under the direction of the non-partisan Government Accountability Board (GAB). The statute requires that the GAB be structured in such a way that it is further removed from partisan politics than any other state authority in the US. It is made up of six former judges who are nominated by four (one from each district) appeals court judges. The governor then appoints one of the nominees who must be confirmed by at least a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Each six-year term is staggered, allowing for one member’s term to expire yearly. The Board and its staff must be non-partisan. Kevin Kennedy, the present director and general counsel of the GAB, is one of the foremost election law experts in the state. “Wisconsin is the only state with a truly non-partisan board structure. It is unique among the states in requiring supermajority confirmation of new commissioners, so as to insulate board members from partisan pressures. This does not guarantee decision making that is blind to partisan effects, but it provides a greater level of protection against partisan decision making than the structure of any other state” (Daniel P. Tokaji UC Irvine Law Review).
No Katherine Harris for us. At least until now.
In case you missed it, there's a move afoot to do away with the Legislative Audit Bureau, a watchdog agency responsible for ensuring clean and effective government in Wisconsin. Knowing a bit of its history and purpose will help you understand why Republicans are now trying to get rid of it.
The Legislative Audit Bureau was created by Chapter 659, Laws of Wisconsin 1965. Prior to the creation of the Bureau, financial audits were performed by the Department of State Audit, an executive branch department created in 1947. 2007 Wisconsin Act 126 created a fraud, waste, and mismanagement hotline that allows the public and individuals within state government to report suspected fraud and other improper acts by state agencies, employees, and contractors. (See the online information page for the Legislative Audit Bureau.)
LAB is a nonpartisan legislative service agency created to assist the Legislature in maintaining effective oversight of state operations. The Bureau conducts objective audits and evaluations of state agency operations to ensure financial transactions have been made in a legal and proper manner and to determine whether programs are administered effectively, efficiently, and in accordance with the policies of the Legislature and the Governor. The results of these evaluations are provided to the Legislature, along with recommendations for improvements in agency operations.
Audits currently in progress include:
- Government Accountability Board Complaints (A review of complaints considered by the Government Accountability Board)
- Wastewater Permitting (A review of certain types of permits issued by the Department of Natural Resources through the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program).
- Employee Trust Funds (A financial audit of the Department of Employee Trust Funds, including an actuarial audit of the Wisconsin Retirement System).
- State of Wisconsin Financial Audit (An audit of the State of Wisconsin's financial statements for fiscal year 2014-15).
- University of Wisconsin System (A financial audit of the University of Wisconsin System for fiscal year 2014-15).
Read on for an account of what's going on and how we're going to stop it.
Crossword fans know that a newt is a variety of salamander and political junkies know that neither the thrice-married Newt Gingrich nor an electoral district shaped like a newt bodes well for the health of our body politic. Nevertheless the state of Wisconsin has a large number of oddly newt-like electoral areas, more familiarly known as gerrymandered districts. How did we come to call them that?
In the 1812, Elbridge Gerry, then the governor of Massachusetts, wanted to benefit his own political party. So he decided to redistrict the Boston area. On the map, the new district he drew looked like a salamander. With tongue-in-cheek, the Boston Gazette combined the governor’s name with part of the word salamander and coined the term gerrymander to describe his actions. We’ve used the term ever since to describe the process of “manipulate[ing] the boundaries of an election or constituency so as to favor one party or class.’
A Washington Post graphic beautifully shows how gerrymandering works.
Across the country, a number of legal actions in recent years have targeted what are seen as inappropriate, even unconstitutional, reapportionment. (For a more detailed history of the prior attempt to overturn the clearly partisan WI 2011 redistricting see Blue Cheddar, July 9, 2015.) Lately there has been growing interest in challenging gerrymandering. An Arizona case just decided by the US Supreme Court in June 2015 ruled that "the people of Arizona were on firm legal ground when they took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature in 2000 and placed it in the hands of an independent district." The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign calls the decision "a tremendous victory for democracy. This gerrymandering that is done every ten years makes a joke of representative government and effectively muffles the voices of millions of voters."
A New Federal Court Challenge
In Wisconsin, a new legal effort has begun in hopes of overturning our current electoral map before the 2016 elections. Filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on July 8, 2015, the suit argues that "the Current Plan is, by any measure, one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in modern American history" and that "because severe gerrymanders are likely to be extremely durable..., it is unlikely that the disadvantaged party’s adherents will be able to protect themselves through the political process“ (Brief filed July 8, 2015).
Voucher schools gain ground in Wisconsin and public education withers. The newly passed 2015-17 Wisconsin state budget destroys public K-12 education piece by piece. The spoils, of course, go to private investors who have long bet on voucher schools, a long-held objective of the American Legislative Council (ALEC).
Governor Scott Walker, an active ALEC member since the early 1990’s, is the main conduit through which ALEC imposes its road map on our state; he’s responsible for most of the policies included in this budget and Motion #999, the last minute addendum to the budget passed by the Joint Finance Committee late in the evening of July 2 and largely adopted wholesale by the two chambers of our legislature.
The effects on our public schools will be devastating.
Crony Capitalism Anyone?
In 2013, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau uncovered widespread mismanagement of the (state) money provided as loans and credits to businesses. That same report indicated that WEDC staff had used the agency's credit cards to buy alcohol and football tickets. In response to these findings, the WEDC board approved a new policy that required a written review on all program awards. Since then, by their own admission, WEDC has approved more than 760 awards, all of which were reviewed by staff (Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2015).
King v Burwell, the latest and perhaps the last judicial challenge to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), has just been upheld by the US Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion. If the decision had gone the other way, the effects would likely have been a slow-moving but ultimately fatal blow to President Obama's signature legislative achievement. For an account of what the ruling means in some detail, read the analysis by Amy Howe on SCOTUSblog.com, the best site anywhere for following all the turns and twists of what goes on at the Supreme Court. Here's a key paragraph from that analysis:
A ruling for the challengers today could have had effects far beyond the insurance markets and the wallets of people who would no longer receive subsidies: it almost certainly would have carried over into both the political arena – as the people who could no longer afford health insurance directed their frustration at elected officials – and the stock market. But by siding with the Obama administration, the Court effectively maintains the status quo, with the subsidies continuing to flow to low- and moderate-income Americans and, more generally, all three key provisions of the ACA remaining intact. Opponents of the ACA will have to re-focus their efforts to repeal the Act on retaining Republican control of Congress and retaking the White House from Democrats in 2016.
The dissent, written by the irascible Justice Scalia and joined in full by Justices Thomas and Alito, concluded that henceforth the law should be known as "SCOTUScare."
Less well known and covered is a housing discrimination case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project. This case also represents a big win for progressives. Here's the New York Times explanation of what was at stake in this case:
The Supreme Court on Thursday endorsed a broad interpretation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, allowing suits under a legal theory that civil rights groups say is a crucial tool to fight housing discrimination....
The question in the case was whether plaintiffs suing under the housing law must prove intentional discrimination or merely that the challenged practice had produced a “disparate impact.” The justices endorsed both interpretations.
Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion for the 5-4 majority with all four of the conservative justices in the minority. Civil rights organizations had been so wary of taking this kind of case to this court that two prior cases raising the same question had been settled before they could be heard by the Supreme Court.
The outcome is a big deal but is getting little press because it has been so overshadowed by the Obamacare case. So as we cheer today for the ACA, let's not forget to give some huzzahs for the affirmation of the Fair Housing Act's scope.
The biggest news of the past week, the Charleston, SC, hate crime, has so dominated the national news that little remains to be said about it. But I thought it worth calling attention to a couple of barely-noticed, Walker-related stories that are sure to amuse.
Here in WI we are well aware of Walker's favorite strategies: duck-and-cover plus divide-and-conquer. The first was on display when he traveled to the UK and dodged questions about evolution. (Remember that episode from February? If not, here's a refresher.) The second hardly needs any reminders, from the first "bomb" dropped in February 2011 (Act 10) to his sudden support of the "right to work for less" law passed this past March.