How quickly we have forgotten. Does anyone remember the infamous Legislative Caucus Scandal of 2001-2002 and how it paralyzed state government for over a year and brought down the top legislative leaders of both political parties and in both chambers in the most serious political scandal to rock Wisconsin in a century?
Apparently not many members of the current Wisconsin Legislature do.
On consecutive days in mid-October of 2002, State Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield), Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti (R-Oconomowoc), and Assistant Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Ladwig (R-Mount Pleasant) were charged with criminal misconduct in public office. Chvala, Jensen and Foti were hit with felony charges and Ladwig with a misdemeanor charge. Four months earlier, State Senator Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee), the Co-Chair of the “powerful” Joint Finance Committee (and a “sworn” enemy of Chvala’s) was charged with numerous felony misconduct in public office charges.
The caucus scandal encompassed a lot of wrongdoing by the top legislative leaders of both political parties in Wisconsin. But at its heart — it was about power and control of money – particularly special interest money. Chuck Chvala was charged with directing special interest groups and companies to send money to help candidates he wanted to have helped or they could forget about having legislation they favored ever going anywhere in the Capitol. He even set up a sham phony issue ad group with the ironic name of “Independent Citizens for Democracy.” It was, of course, the exact opposite of all three of those words. It was anything but independent, there were no citizens involved in it and it undermined democracy. Legislative leaders then, as now, were also the de facto heads of the four legislative campaign committees – which are big Super PACS of mostly special interest money that the leaders control and direct to reward favored candidates and punish those that fall out of line. The four legislative campaign committees (State Senate Democratic and Republican Campaign Committees and the Assembly Democratic and Republican Campaign Committees) as well as the two major political parties are all, by law, limited to collecting $150,000 in special interest political action committee money every two years – hardly chump change.
But earlier this month, Assembly Bill 225, the campaign finance and elections package that passed in the State Assembly by voice vote, contained a provision that doubled all contribution limits for candidates. Candidates for Governor and other statewide office would be able to collect $20,000 from any individual. Obviously that will be a small but very influential universe of Wisconsinites who will be able to make such substantial political donations. But what is even more alarming than the doubling of contributions to candidates — and which has not been talked about by anyone but Common Cause in Wisconsin — is the provision that doubles the amount of special interest money that the four legislative campaign committees will be able to collect if Assembly Bill 225 becomes law. Instead of the current $150,000, Assembly Bill 225 would allow all four of them to each collect $300,000 every two years. The legislative leadership would then have more money to control and dole out at their whim. And the independence of rank and file members of the Assembly and State Senate would be diminished further. If the leadership didn’t like that a legislator exercised independent judgment and voted against the position of the leadership – even on a matter of conscience – the leadership could “punish” that legislator and even threaten to finance a primary challenge to him or her. That’s what Chvala did in the late 1990’s. And Assembly Bill 225 gives twice as much special interest money to the leaders to use to squelch dissent.
In the Fall of 2001, CC/WI worked closely with – then State Representatives Marty Reynolds (D-Ladysmith) and Mike Powers (R-Albany) to eliminate the four partisan Legislative Caucus Staffs. And it passed – at a savings of $4 million a year to Wisconsin taxpayers. We then tried to eliminate the legislative campaign committees, but fell short.
When the State Senate considers Assembly Bill 225 – it ought to eliminate the doubling of contributions to candidates. But it absolutely ought to eliminate the provision that doubles the amount of special interest PAC contributions that would rise from the current $150,000 to $300,000 to the legislative campaign committees every two years.
Better yet, the State Senate should eliminate altogether the legislative campaign committees and get the special interest money out of the State Capitol and out of the hands of the legislative leaders — who should focus on the needs of the citizens of Wisconsin, instead of the enhancement of their own, fleeting, political power.
If not, remember the names Jensen, Chvala, Foti, Ladwig and Burke. And begin to place your bet on when the next big campaign fundraising scandal in the Wisconsin Legislature erupts.
The smart money will bet on sooner rather than later.
To review the major events and chronology of the caucus scandal, go here.
Jay Heck is executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan, nonprofit citizen’s lobbying organization that focuses on campaign finance, election, lobby reform, open meetings law and other issues concerning the promotion and maintenance of “clean,” open, responsive and accountable government.