In this update:
1. Legislators addicted to out-of-district money
2. New poll shows few trust state government
3. Online index of officials' finances a hit so far
4. You can help us track electioneering by front groups
Wisconsin legislators are getting nearly three-quarters of their campaign money from people who cannot vote for them, a Democracy Campaign analysis of 2005 legislative fundraising shows.
The money is flowing to power, as the top recipients of contributions from special interests who live outside the districts of those receiving their donations were legislative leaders. Senate Republican leader Dale Schultz raked in the most out-of-district money, relying on outside donors for 80% of his large individual donations. Assembly Republican Majority Leader Mike Huebsch was second, with 89% of his take coming from donors who do not live in his district. Out-of-district donors accounted for 97% of the total raised by Assembly Speaker John Gard, who ranked fourth.
Twelve legislators raised 100% of their large individual contributions from outside special interests. To see how state representatives from your area stack up, go here.
The Democracy Campaign's findings help explain and confirm the validity of Wisconsin residents' widespread belief that ethical standards in state government are in the toilet and wealthy special interest contributors and the lobbyists who represent them have more influence over legislators than voters do.
2006 is not shaping up to be a good year to be a state office holder seeking re-election. According to the most recent poll by the right-wing Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 62% of state residents think it is important to elect new people to office.
Only 6% of those surveyed by WPRI in mid-June think that elected officials represent the interest of voters, a finding that exactly mirrors an earlier poll conducted late last year. Only 3% of residents surveyed for the most recent poll trust state government to almost always do the right thing.
A whopping 81% believe that lobbying groups have more power than voters, and 73% say campaign contributors are more powerful than voters. All this led the La Crosse Tribune to editorialize again in support of action on ethics reform.
There is no remaining doubt that Wisconsin citizens know there is an ethics problem in state government and they know that campaign contributions are at the heart of the political corruption. But citizens also appear doubtful that there is a solution. When asked by WPRI whether they favor using tax dollars to finance Wisconsin political campaigns, 65% said no.
What is most sadly striking about the leading question WPRI asked and the public sentiment it evoked is the apparent lack of awareness that taxpayers will always foot the bill for political campaigns, one way or the other. Taxpayers either can pay directly for campaigns through a system of public financing of elections or they'll pay indirectly for them by having to pick up the cost of government favors that go to big campaign donors.
Publicly financing state election campaigns would cost each taxpayer between $5 and $10 annually. Democracy Campaign research shows that the cost of tax breaks, pork barrel spending and government contracts given to wealthy campaign donors exceeds $1,300 a year for each and every taxpayer in the state.
The new online index giving citizens the ability to look into possible financial conflicts of interest involving state officials is so far generating significant interest.
The Oshkosh Northwestern lauded the new feature of the state Ethics Board's web site in a recent editorial, but also made it clear the Ethics Board has failed to effectively deal with the government corruption that has flourished on its watch in recent years.
The Wisconsin State Journal also warmly greeted the new online index but also pointed out its limitations and said the new tool won't have maximum impact unless there is a change in the state law that currently requires citizens to reveal their identity to the state officials whose financial disclosure reports they wish to inspect. The Democracy Campaign has long advocated such a change.
We recently reported that state Elections Board staff are asking the board to approve nearly a half-million dollars in payments to the global outsourcing firm Accenture LLP, over and above the $14 million Accenture was due to receive under the original agreement reached in November 2004, which required the work to be completed by January 1, 2006, a deadline that came and went six months ago.
The system Accenture is developing for the state still does not work, and the City of Madison now is planning to spend $50,000 to hire six temporary employees to guard against long delays in voting because of glitches in the new system.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has told the Elections Board that the state's new voter registration system can't process absentee ballots and is five times slower than the city of Madison's current system. Cieslewicz also told the board the city would have to continue to maintain its own voter registration system as a backup because of the shortcomings in Accenture's system and uncertainty about its performance.
Now that the campaign season is heating up, we remind all E-lert subscribers that you can be a big help in tracking the activities of political front groups that will be running ads aimed at influencing this fall's elections. If you receive mailings or see or hear newspaper, television or radio ads, you can use our Hijack Hotline to report them to us.
Spread the word by sending this message to people you know. To support the Democracy Campaign's work, go here.