When the Minimum Is Not Enough

“…no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages
to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Franklin Roosevelt 
1938 Fair Labor Standards Act – minimum wage: 25 cents

The whole subject of minimum wage laws and their effects on local and regional economies is a contentious one. We’re at an important juncture in the debate now because a number of municipalities have recently passed ordinances to raise minimum wages. So we have some natural experiments we can watch over the next few years. While we’re waiting for those efforts to play out, though, we can turn to a large number of highly respected studies of the matter to see whether raising a minimum wage is, as its critics claim, a “job killer.”

The Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) comprehensive study, Raising the Minimum Wage to $10.10 per hour in Wisconsin, found that

increasing the minimum wage does not “kill jobs.” 600 economists, including seven Nobel prize winners and eight past presidents of the American Economic Association, have called for an increase in the minimum wage. Their letter sums up the case on jobs: ‘In recent years there have been important developments in the academic literature on the effect of increases in the minimum wage on employment, with the weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.’

This chart illustrates the disconnect between productivity and wages, and what wages would be had they kept pace with productivity.


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Is the FIX in?

CMuYnLNUAAALBu7.jpgScott Walker and Robin Vos are hatching plots to tighten their grip on the government of Wisconsin. How? By "FIXING" what isn't broken.

At the top of the list is the Government Accountability Board. For more than a year, news reports and opinion columns have been vehicles for accusing the GAB of favoring Democrats. For example, there's the piece by Matt Pommer in the GazetteXtra from October 21, 2014. The article quotes Vos saying "the Government Accountability Board (GAB) is 'dysfunctional, unresponsive, and totally undemocratic.... 'I promise you that two years from now when we are sitting here, the GAB will not be in the current format'" (GazetteXtra). The new format is to be partisan: "[Vos] said he would like to see partisan appointees have a role in administering campaign finance laws" (JSOnline, Aug 4, 2015).

The push for this "FIX" has been vocal and fierce, but recent developments may finally turn the tide against this naked political power grab. The Legislative Audit Bureau has completed two investigations of the GAB in recent months. The first looked at the operations of the agency and "found no problems with the G.A.B.’s financial accounting or spending, and called for no significant changes regarding the core duties and performance of the Board or its staff" (G. A. B. Statement Regarding LAB Audit, Dec 12, 2014). The second audit, examining the GAB's handling of complaints about elections, campaigns, or lobbying, found no significant problems with the board's handling of its responsibilities. Significantly, the report, released on August 20, 2015, describes an engaged Board that probes, evaluates and considers the materials and recommendations presented by staff.

But never mind all that, key GOP leaders say. The same day the report was released, "Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, called for GAB director Kevin Kennedy's resignation, calling the GAB a 'rogue agency that ignores state law and operates against its founding principles'" (CapTimes, August 20, 2015).

So the FIX IS IN: if we don't stop them, the Republicans will turn our nonpartisan election watchdog into another one of their lapdogs. 

But WE CAN STOP IT. In June citizens rose up and squashed the last minute budget inclusion that would have made a mockery of our open records law. To safeguard the GAB, to protect the agency that guards against illegal campaign activities and ensures free and fair elections in Wisconsin, we need to do it again: ORGANIZE and FIGHT BACK.

You can help by joining our RAPID RESPONSE TEAM. We'll give you all the tools you need to GIVE 'EM HELL:

  • templates for letters to the editors of media outlets all over the state
  • contact information for every legislator
  • templates for letters to every legislator
  • a list of the 24 Republican legislators who voted to establish the GAB in 2007 and who are still in the legislature (we'll want to target them especially)
  • scripts for calling legislators
  • tips on using all your social media networks to spread the word and garner support
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The Future of Voting in America

letPeopleVote.jpegWhile work intensifies to ensure that every voter in Wisconsin is properly prepared to vote in next year’s series of elections, additional legal and legislative efforts are underway that challenge the restrictions now associated with voting.

Most people are aware of the provision that requires a citizen present a specific type of identification at the polls to be able to vote.   But general awareness of the other new rules is not as wide-spread.  Among the other challenges to the right/ability to vote, the new laws

  • Reduced the early voting period from 30 to 12 days;
  • Eliminated weekend and evening voting;
  • Eliminated straight-ticket voting for all but overseas and military voters, adding to wait times at the polls;
  • Required proof of residence when registering to vote, except for overseas or military voters;
  • Barred the state from certifying statewide voter registrars, meaning anyone who registers voters can only do so in a particular county where they’re certified;
  • Made it harder for college students to use their IDs as proof of residence when registering to vote;
  • Increased residency requirements from 10 to 28 days, except for presidential elections;
  • Required that those who move within the state in the four weeks prior to an election vote in their old location not their new one;
  • Eliminated the faxing or emailing of absentee ballots, except to overseas or military voters;
  • Barred municipal clerks from returning absentee ballots to voters so they can fix mistakes;
  • Required that an area for poll monitors be set up between three and eight feet from the table where voters sign in.

In May of this year, Hillary Clinton’s top campaign lawyer, acting independently from the campaign, filed a new legal challenge to the slew of restrictive voting laws signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. According to MSNBC,

The complaint charges that the “right [to vote] has been under attack in Wisconsin since Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and both houses of the State Legislature in the 2010 election.”  It seeks to overturn not only the state’s controversial voter ID law, but also a host of other restrictive measures that have largely flown under the radar. All these measures, the suit alleges, have already made it harder for Wisconsinites to cast a ballot, and target “African-American, Latino, young, and/or Democratic voters in Wisconsin in particular,” in violation of the Voting Rights Act. ["Top Clinton lawyer challenges Walker’s voting restrictions", MSNBC.com, June 1, 2015]

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A Chapter In the Story About the Bad Guys and the Government Accountability Board

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. 

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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.

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When Salamanders Rule, Voters Lose

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).

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Withering Our Schools

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. 

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