If you go by the latest polling done by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), state politicians are owned by the lobbyists and the special interest groups, don’t give a whit about what average citizens want or need, and generally seem to rank somewhere between used car salesmen and child molesters in the public’s estimation.
A measly 2 percent of Wisconsin residents believe they can trust state government to do what is right almost all the time. Eighty-two percent say lobbying groups determine what state government spends money on, while only 12 percent believe voters ultimately control the purse strings.
When asked whether the standard of ethics in the state Legislature has changed over the last decade, 44 percent think it has gotten worse while only 6 percent think it has changed for the better. And a mere 10 percent think their elected officials represent the voters’ interests, compared to 43 percent who think they’re working for the special interests and 42 percent who think state politicians are just looking out for their own self-interest.
WPRI concludes that "something extraordinary is happening in Wisconsin." The group says: "Years of political neglect by their elected officials are beginning to have a serious toll on the confidence of Wisconsin residents in elected officials and their state government. The lack of optimism is seen in all aspects of life in Wisconsin today, whether it is the state’s economy, the ethics of state government and elected officials or the dominance of lobbying in the political process. Wisconsin residents are extremely unhappy and becoming more and more disconnected from their government and the state’s politics … The issues of lobbying, state ethics and the state’s economy has never been more on the mind of Wisconsin residents. It would not be surprising if, in 2008, Wisconsin voters send a message that will be even louder than the one sent in 2006."
Are state lawmakers listening? Do they even care what the public thinks of them?
They’ll answer these questions when they decide what to make of the special session on campaign reform.
Speaking of which, the Legislature briefly convened the special session on Dec. 11 before adjourning until Jan. 15.
Legislators clearly were caught off guard by Gov. Jim Doyle’s call for a special session and are unsure of how to proceed.
But already you can see that it is the instinct of the political class to fiercely defend the ownership of our state government by the lobbyists and their special interest clients. Oh, they don’t come right out and say they have no problem with big donations from wealthy interests who expect lavish favors in return for their political gifts. They say they are bound and determined to prevent the general public from being forced to pay for elections.
This is hypocrisy, spoken in code. And the public increasingly sees right through it. Wisconsin taxpayers already are forced to pay for state election campaigns. We pay every time our elected state representatives reward one of their big donors. We pay for every new tax break, for every budget bill laced with pork, for every sweetheart deal on a state contract. We pay through the nose for elections.
The debate that will start again in the Legislature on Jan. 15 has absolutely nothing to do with whether the public pays for elections. We will always pay, one way or another. The real issue, whether or not the Legislature chooses to debate it, is ownership. Who will own our state government? The wealthy donors or the voters?
As the WPRI poll shows, the vast majority of citizens have figured out the crooked game the politicians are playing. And as the group rightly observes, "something extraordinary is happening in Wisconsin."
The only question is how long it will take for state politicians to get the picture.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics and works for campaign finance reform and other democracy reforms. Additional information is available at www.wisdc.org.