Politics

Nothing Scandalous

Wisconsin politics used to be squeaky clean. Now "jaded" would be a better word.
by | May 2005

Wisconsin once was a place where the smallest misdeed by a politician- -use of state phones for personal calls, free sports tickets from a lobbyist--was treated by press and public as a significant "scandal," and often prompted quick reform legislation. Those days are over. Right now, with half a dozen of the state's former legislators awaiting trial on campaign-related corruption and kickback charges, the legislature can't find the votes to clean up the mess in campaign finance law. "We're the state of Robert La Follette," says a frustrated Jay Heck, head of Common Cause in Wisconsin. "What the hell's the problem?"

The problem is that incumbents benefit from the current system. Mostly, they benefit from the fact that the campaign spending rules-- along with skewed partisan district maps--have freed them from competition. Last year, 51 of the 115 state legislators on the ballot faced no major-party opposition, and 44 had no opponent at all.

That's because it's so easy for the incumbents to raise money in Wisconsin--and so hard for challengers to raise it. Public financing for legislative campaigns actually is on the books, but the amount of funding is so puny that only no-hope challengers sign up for it. A close contest for the Wisconsin Senate--of which there are very few these days--can cost $1 million or more. Only incumbents and the very wealthy are legitimate players in that game.

While Wisconsin has been squandering its reformist image, less likely states have actually been doing something about campaign finance. Maine and Arizona have full-fledged public-funding laws, enacted by voter initiative, that make competitive campaigns more than just an aberration. Arizona takes its new rules so seriously that its Clean Elections Commission is attempting to oust a state representative for exceeding spending limits by 17 percent.

Some reformers in Wisconsin now say the only hope for significant change may be for things to start looking even worse as the former legislators stand trial, beginning this fall. Some ugly court cases that drag on well into the election year might be enough to re-ignite the reformist consensus that used to exist in the state. "More than luck," says Jay Heck, "we need a good scandal."

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