Tag Archives: influence

Wis. Supreme Court urged to bar judges from cases involving their donors

The Wisconsin Supreme Court this week postponed an open meeting about whether to bar judges, including those on the high court, from hearing cases involving people who donated significantly to their election campaigns.

The Supreme Court, whose 5-2 majority leans conservative, was scheduled to take up a petition on March 16 from 54 retired Wisconsin judges pushing for the rule change.

But the open meeting was postponed until April 20 after Brian McGrath, a lawyer for the conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, emailed the court to say his group intends to show that the petition “should be dismissed without a further and wasteful investment of judicial and public resources” and plans to submit its arguments in writing in the next 30 days.

Jenni Dye, a research director at the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said in a statement she’s not surprised the court accommodated the group.

“The coalition of retired judges asking for this rule change were concerned about corruption or the appearance of corruption on the court,” she said. “That the court would go along with this request from a conservative group is further proof the rules need to change to insulate the justices from influence of special interests.”

The institute’s president, Rick Esenberg, said the court is doing what it should by waiting for input from various points of view.

“What could possibly be the problem with taking the time to listen to a petition from someone with another perspective?” he said.

Esenberg said his group plans to argue that tightening the rules would inhibit free speech by steering individual supporters away from contributing to campaigns and amplifying special interest groups.

“Speech cannot happen without resources,” he said. “If we’re going to have elections, we need to be able to have a public conversation.”

The postponement came the day a national campaign finance watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, sent a letter to the court urging it to adopt stricter rules, arguing that Wisconsin lags behind other states in preventing judicial conflicts of interest.

The Brennan Center for Justice also sent the court a letter this week urging a review of the rules.

Currently, donors can give up to $20,000 to Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates and a court can’t force judges to recuse themselves from cases with possible conflicts of interest.

Former Milwaukee County Judge Michael Skwierawski, who helped write the petition, said he’s troubled by the influx of money to judicial campaigns.

“It puts judges in a difficult position when all that extra money is forced on campaigns,” he said, adding that even judges who act in good faith risk having the appearance of their independence tarnished.

“Someone cannot simply pay for a judge’s election and expect the public to believe the judge could be fair on a case involving that party,” he said.

The petition suggested requiring judges to recuse themselves if they have received campaign donations from any parties in the case of varying amounts, ranging from $10,000 for state Supreme Court justices to $500 for municipal judges. The proposal would include in the total any expenditures made to influence the outcome of an election, including those to third parties, though Esenberg expressed doubts about whether this would be viable. If more than four judges are recused for a case, the proposal suggests allowing an appeals court judge or retired Supreme Court justices to hear a case to ensure four judges.

Candidates currently are also free to coordinate with outside interest groups who spend money on so-called issue advocacy but stop short of endorsing specific candidates. That stems from a 2015 Wisconsin Supreme Court case centered on whether Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with outside interest groups.

Now-retired Justice David Prosser, one of three conservative judges to halt the investigation, acknowledged at the time that some groups under investigation had helped his campaign, but he refused to recuse himself, saying the spending happened years ago.

 

Priebus: Trump now believes Russia carried out cyber attacks during election

President-elect Donald Trump accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia engaged in cyber attacks during the U.S. presidential election and may take action in response, his incoming chief of staff said on Jan. 8.

Reince Priebus said Trump believes Russia was behind the intrusions into the Democratic Party organizations, although Priebus did not clarify whether the president-elect agreed that the hacks were directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He accepts the fact that this particular case was entities in Russia, so that’s not the issue,” Priebus said on Fox News Sunday.

It was the first acknowledgment from a senior member of the Republican president-elect’s team that Trump had accepted that Russia directed the hacking and subsequent disclosure of Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential election.

Trump had rebuffed allegations that Russia was behind the hacks or was trying to help him win, saying the intrusions could have been carried out by China or a 400-pound hacker on his bed.

With less than two weeks until his Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump has come under increasing pressure from fellow Republicans to accept intelligence community findings on Russian hacking and other attempts by Moscow to influence the Nov. 8 election. A crucial test of Republican support for Trump comes this week with the first confirmation hearings for his Cabinet picks.

A U.S. intelligence report last week said Putin directed a sophisticated influence campaign including cyber attacks to denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and support Trump.

The report concluded vote tallies were not affected by Russian interference, but did not assess whether it influenced the outcome of the vote in other ways.

‘ACTION MAY BE TAKEN’

After receiving a briefing on Friday from leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump did not refer specifically to Russia’s role in the presidential campaign.

In a statement, he acknowledged that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat(ic) National Committee.”

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told Reuters the president-elect’s conclusions remained the same and that Priebus’ comments were in line with Friday’s statement.

Priebus’ wording did not appear to foreshadow the dramatic reversal of Trump’s apparent Russia policy that experts say would be required to deter further cyber attacks.

“It will take a lot more than what we heard on television today to make Putin cool it,” the expert added. “In fact, there may not be anything that can deter Putin from pursuing a course he’s bet his future and Russia’s on,” said a U.S. intelligence expert on Russia, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss domestic political positions.

The expert added that Putin’s “multifaceted campaign of cyber attacks and espionage, propaganda, financial leverage, fake news and traditional espionage” had expanded in the United States since the election, “and it will be a shock if it does not escalate in France, Germany and elsewhere this year.”

Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman Trump tapped as White House chief of staff, said Trump planned to order the intelligence community to make recommendations as to what should be done. “Action may be taken,” he said, adding there was nothing wrong with trying to have a good relationship with Russia and other countries.

Two senior Republican senators urged Trump to punish Russia in response to U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Putin personally directed efforts aimed at influencing the election.

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain said evidence was conclusive that Putin sought to influence the election — a point that Trump has refuted.

“In a couple weeks, Donald Trump will be the defender of the free world and democracy,” Graham said. “You should let everybody know in America, Republicans and Democrats, that you’re going to make Russia pay a price for trying to interfere.”

On Saturday, Trump wrote on Twitter that having a better relationship with Russia was a “good thing.”

U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said three U.S. presidents had tried and failed to be friends with Putin.

“I’m just not sure it’s possible,” Nunes said on the Fox News Sunday program. “I’ve cautioned his administration to be careful with Putin, as he remains a bad actor.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed it was not unusual for a new president to want to get along with the Russians. He added on CBS, however, that the Russians remained a “big adversary, and they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election.”

Obama, who himself tried to “reset” relations with Russia after he took office in 2009, told NBC he did not think he had underestimated the Russian president.

“But I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation for cyber hacking and so forth to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating,” he said in an interview with Meet the Press broadcast on Sunday.

Wisconsin communities vote to amend, overturn Citizens United

Wisconsin voters in 18 communities Nov. 8 voted for non-binding referenda to amend the U.S. Constitution to say that money is not the same thing as free speech and overturn Citizens United.

“People across the ideological spectrum get it: All of our voices are being drowned out by those with big money,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

The questions were approved with overwhelming majorities:

• Rock County (86 percent)

• Reedsburg (86 percent)

• Manitowoc (81 percent)

• Delafield (79 percent)

• Neshkoro (88 percent)

• New Glarus (88 percent)

• Spring Valley (91 percent)

• Osceola (86 percent)

• Mt. Horeb (84 percent)

• Monticello (86 percent)

• Clayton (86 percent)

• New Glarus (83 percent)

• Harris (65 percent)

• Springdale (86 percent)

• Decatur (89 percent)

• Mount Pleasant (84 percent)

• Cadiz (87 percent)

• Lake Tomahawk (91 percent)

A total of 96 Wisconsin communities — home to 2.8 million people — have called for an amendment.

Across the country, 18 state legislatures have voted for a constitutional amendment, as well as more than 700 towns, villages, cities and counties.

Jeanette Kelty, a leader of the amendment movement in Green County, said the morning after the election, “We are extremely pleased that these referenda passed by such high margins. This clearly demonstrates the will of the people. It is time for our state representatives to put this resolution to a statewide vote, and to move towards sending a resolution from Wisconsin to the U.S. Congress.”

Four in five Americans oppose the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, according to a Bloomberg poll. A New York Times/CBS poll.

“Big money has absolutely corrupted our system of government of, by, and for the people,” said Gerry Flakas of Delafield, another activist involved in the amendment push. “The only solution is to amend the Constitution to clarify that money is not speech and a corporation is not a person.”

On the Web

United To Amend is a non-partisan, grassroots movement. For more information visit wiuta.org.

Wisconsin ethics commission votes to allow members to contribute to state campaigns

By Jay Heck, Common Cause in Wisconsin

This week, the newly-constituted partisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission voted 4-2 to allow its members to make political contributions to state candidates for election.

This is insanity.

As Ethics Commission member Robert Kinney, a former Oneida County circuit judge, argued, “it’s a matter of perception and public confidence.”

“We have, right now, people claiming that elections are rigged,” Kinney said. “We don’t want to create a situation where there’s less confidence in government, less confidence in fairness, less confidence in nonpartisanship.”

Kinney and Republican Pat Strachota, the former Assembly majority leader, effectively voted against allowing contributions according to an AP article about the vote.

But much shame on Peg Lautenschlager, the former Democratic Attorney General, for voting against the ban on contributions from the partisan commissioners.

As well as to Democratic, hyper-partisan attorney, David Halbrooks, Republican Party partisan Katie McCallum and former Republican state Senator and Waukesha County Judge Mac Davis for their support of allowing commission members to make contributions.

Just how stupid do they think Wisconsinites are?

The nonpartisan retired judges, who comprised the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board prior to June 30 did not make political contributions to candidates for state office. But these commissioners, by a 4-2 vote, decided “it’s fine.”

No, it isn’t.

How far we have fallen, so quickly.

Wisconsinites already have very little confidence in the newly-constituted, hyper-partisan GAB to effectively oversee elections, campaign finance law, ethics and lobbying in Wisconsin, which was formed by Republican legislators and Gov. Scott Walker after they destroyed the nonpartisan GAB late last year.

This latest decision destroys what little confidence there may have been.

Common Cause in Wisconsin is a non-partisan, nonprofit citizen’s lobby that focuses on campaign finance, election and lobby reform, open meetings law and other issues concerning the promotion and maintenance of “clean,” open, responsive and accountable government.

Cash for Cruz: Billionaires helped Cruz rise in GOP presidential bid

Four of America’s wealthiest businessmen laid the foundation for Ted Cruz’s now-surging Republican presidential campaign and have redefined the role of political donors.

With just over a week until voters get their first say, the 45-year-old Texas senator known as a conservative warrior has been ascendant. The $36 million committed last year by these donor families is now going toward broadcast and online advertisements, direct mailings and get-out-the-vote efforts in early primary states.

The donors’ super political action committees sponsored weekend rallies in Iowa featuring Cruz and conservative personality Glenn Beck. The state holds the leadoff caucuses on Feb. 1.

The long-believing benefactors are New York hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, Texas natural gas billionaires Farris and Dan Wilks, and private-equity partner Toby Neugebauer. They honed their plan to help Cruz before he began his steady rise in polls — before he even announced his presidential bid in March.

“No one wants to lose,” Neugebauer told The Associated Press when asked why he and others bet big on Cruz. “We didn’t miss that an outsider would win. I think we’ve nailed it.”

The groundwork laid by Neugebauer and other major donors began roughly two years ago, first in a casual conversation with Cruz at a donor’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, then in a more formal way over the 2014 Labor Day weekend at Neugebauer’s ranch in East Texas.

That October, big-data firm Cambridge Analytica — in which Mercer is an investor — began working to identify potential Cruz voters and develop messages that would motivate them. Alexander Nix, the company’s chief executive officer, said the importance of this early work cannot be overstated. He credits Cruz for understanding this.

“Money never buys you time,” Nix said, drawing from his experiences with campaigns worldwide. “Too often clients will come to you just before an election and expect you to work miracles. But you cannot roll back the clock.”

Key donors soon came up with a novel arrangement: Each family would control its own super PAC, but the groups would work together as a single entity called Keep the Promise. They keep in touch through weekly strategy phone calls.

That’s not how super PACs usually work. More typically, multiple donors turn over their money and leave the political decisions to professional strategists. For example, Jeb Bush’s super PAC counts more than two dozen million-dollar donors.

For Cruz, the pool of really big donors is far more concentrated: Mercer gave $11 million, Neugebauer gave $10 million, and the Wilks brothers and their wives together gave $15 million.

That level of support has opened Cruz to criticism that donors are influencing his policies, whether on abortion, energy or the gold standard.

Ethanol advocates point to his oil and gas donors as the reason he wants to discontinue that government subsidy for the corn-based fuel. Cruz and the donors have dismissed that as nonsense. His campaign cites as evidence Cruz’s desire to end handouts to all parts of the energy industry.

Neugebauer, whose private equity investment firm has investments in shale, moved to Puerto Rico in 2014. He said he relocated for his children’s education, but there are tax breaks as well.

Mercer is a former computer programmer and co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, one of the country’s largest hedge funds. The Wilks brothers are relative newcomers to the world of political donations, having made billions in 2011 by selling their company, which manufactures equipment for the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.

Although these donors set aside their millions for Cruz 10 months ago, it’s only now that the money is making its way to the 2016 race in a major way.

Since mid-December, the Keep the Promise super PACs have documented about $4 million in independent expenditures to help Cruz or attack other candidates — most often Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, federal election records show.

The super PACs have been identifying and connecting with Cruz voters through digital ads and door-knocking, and recently began a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign. A Keep the Promise van tailed the Cruz campaign bus as it made its way through Iowa last week. Super PAC workers handed out thousands of “Choose Cruz” yard signs.

For the biggest donors, it’s no surprise that Cruz seems to be well-positioned heading into the primaries. In mid-July, Keep the Promise posted on its website a slide-show presentation called “Can He Win?” The document predicted it would be “very difficult for Establishment to destroy the conservative challenger.” 

Engaged citizens foster strong cities

More than ever, citizens are engaged in deciding what they want and need in their communities. Ideally, residents, business interests and civic advocates collaborate, usually along with government officials, to promote successful development. Such grassroots decision-making emphasizes consensus and inclusiveness. It’s democracy at the local level.

But such engagement can be messy, time-consuming and even nerve-wracking. Chuck Marohn, founder of the nonprofit Strong Towns, posits that from-the-ground-up processes are “chaotic but smart,” while top-down ones are “orderly but dumb.” In other words, efficiency isn’t everything.

Although inclusiveness promotes resilient communities, those in traditional power structures often resist new input — especially from those whose voices have been marginalized. Trying to perpetuate the status quo, bureaucracies may discourage or undermine efforts to build true consensus. 

A key statewide force in community engagement is 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. The Madison-based nonprofit was founded in 1996 by a diverse group “to become the citizens voice for sound land-use planning.” The group helped pass the state’s “Smart Growth Law” in 1999, which requires all municipalities to develop sustainable and comprehensive plans.

Groups such as the Center for Resilient Cities of Madison and Milwaukee promote grassroots transformation of neighborhoods. The Green Bay Packers designed their Titletown District after ongoing engagement with residents and local businesses.

In contrast, plans and subsidies for the new Milwaukee Bucks Arena and surrounding development of formerly public land proceeded with virtually no community input. Commitments of taxpayer millions were made without involving citizens.

Cities and developers sometimes offer “check-the-box” tactics to create the illusion of citizen input. Such tactics often come in the form of “town hall meetings,” where citizens may only pose written questions fielded by a gatekeeper. Or decision makers might solicit input for a project after it’s a fait accompli. Or residents might only get to suggest minor adjustments or choose among fixed options.

Some “public forums” are conducted merely to gain buy-in from those affected by top-down decisions. While such input may seem better than none, it can also breed cynicism if citizens feel their views are moot.

Successful community engagement evolves through a gradual process and is often guided by committed individuals who both facilitate and inspire. In Milwaukee, strong community participation informed the new Innovation and Wellness Commons at 16th and North Avenue and Johnsons Park revitalization in Lindsay Heights. It is informing new public spaces, including The Spot4MKE in downtown and the ARTery flanking Harrambee and Riverwest. 

The Greater Milwaukee Committee recently enlisted urban-planning consultant Toni Griffin to steer an “inclusive” process of visioning for Greater Downtown. Griffin’s focus has been on creating “just cities” that serve everyone, not just elites or even the middle class. 

Meaningful community engagement requires time and commitment. Democracy demands participation. Citizens cannot wait for top-down invitations to discuss and shape issues affecting the vitality of their communities. 

Sanders: This is what oligarchy looks like

Earlier this year, a number of Republicans flew to California to make fundraising pitches to more than four hundred wealthy conservative donors attending a private conference hosted by the Koch brothers.

It’s worth taking a moment to ask the question, who are the Koch brothers, and what do they want?

The Koch brothers are the second-wealthiest family in America worth $82 billion. For the Koch brothers, $82 billion in wealth apparently is not good enough. Owning the second-largest private company in America is apparently not good enough. It doesn’t appear that they will be satisfied until they are able to control the entire political process.

This issue isn’t personal for me. I don’t know the Koch brothers, but I do know this. They have advocated for destroying the federal programs that are critical to the financial and personal health of middle class Americans.

Now, most Americans know that the Koch brothers are the primary source of funding for the Tea Party, and that’s fine. They know that they favor the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and that’s their opinion. It’s wrong, but that’s fine as well.

But it is not widely known that David Koch once ran for Vice President of the United States of America on the Libertarian Party ticket because he believed Ronald Reagan was much too liberal. And he ran on a platform that included the following:

  • “We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt and increasingly oppressive Social Security system.”
  • “We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”
  • “We support repeal of all laws which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws…”
  • “We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.”

In 1980, David Koch’s presidential ticket received one percent of the vote from the American people. And rightly so. His views were so extreme they were rejected completely out of hand by the American people.

But fast forward almost thirty-six years, and one of the most significant realities of modern politics is just how successful David Koch and the like-minded billionaires attending his retreat have been at moving the Republican Party to the extreme right. The ideas above that were dismissed as downright crazy in 1980 are now part of today’s mainstream Republican thinking.

The Koch brothers, and billionaires like them, have bought up the private sector and now they’re buying up the government. It’s up to us to put a stop to them, but it will require all of us standing together with one voice on this issue. 

Here’s the truth: The economic and political systems of this country are stacked against ordinary Americans. The rich get richer and use their wealth to buy elections, and I believe that we cannot change this corrupt system by taking its money. If we’re serious about creating jobs, health care for all, climate change, and the needs of our children and the elderly, we must be serious about campaign finance reform.

So far in this election, less than four hundred families have contributed the majority of all the money raised by all the candidates and super PACs combined. According to media reports, one family will spend more money in this election than either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This is not democracy. This is oligarchy.

Our job is not to think small in this moment. The current system of campaign finance in this country is utterly corrupt. That is one of the reasons I am so proud of how we have funded our campaign — over 2.5 million contributions from working Americans giving less than $30 at a time. But our campaign is unique.

We must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and I will not nominate any justice to the Supreme Court who does not make it abundantly clear that she or he will overturn that decision. We need legislation that requires wealthy individuals and corporations who make large campaign contributions to disclose where their money is going. And more importantly, I believe we need to move towards the public funding of elections.

Our vision for American democracy should be a nation in which all people, regardless of their income, can participate in the political process, can run for office without begging for contributions from the wealthy and the powerful.

Tomorrow afternoon (Jan. 5) I’ll be in New York City to deliver a major speech about our need to create a financial system that works for all Americans, not just the few.

In solidarity,

Bernie Sanders

 

Environmental super PAC falling short of 2014 midterm elections goal

A super PAC aiming to make climate change a key issue in this year’s midterm elections is falling far short of its goal to raise $100 million, cramping the group’s ability to influence major races with just four months left until Election Day.

NextGen Climate announced plans in May to spend at least $100 million in seven competitive Senate and gubernatorial races. Its founder, retired hedge fund manager and longtime Democratic donor Tom Steyer, put up $50 million of his own money, and the group said it would raise the rest from likeminded donors.

But with the election approaching, the group has brought in less than $5 million from outside donors — and only $1.2 million for its super PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee, which can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing political candidates. The rest of the funds were donated to the group’s nonprofit wing and are being used for advocacy work opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and for other costs, the group said.

The lackluster success in recruiting other high-dollar donors means Steyer’s group will have to prioritize how it spends its limited funds on an array of pricey political campaigns. In 2014, the group is backing Democrats and opposing their Republican opponents for Senate in New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan, and for governor in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine.

NextGen officials said the group plans to keep raising money aggressively this year, and will concentrate on races in which the candidates have major differences over whether climate change is real and what the government should do about it. The group has also said Steyer’s $50 million is the floor, not the ceiling, of what he might donate himself.

The super PAC already has gone on the air in Pennsylvania, attacking GOP Gov. Tom Corbett for accepting major donations from oil and natural gas companies and arguing that he’s beholden to the industry. Corbett faces a serious re-election challenge from Democrat Tom Wolf.

But it’s unclear how much of an impact the group can have in swaying the races that will determine which party controls the Senate and governors’ mansions in key states. Democrats are fighting most of their toughest races this year in conservative, oil-dependent states where even Democrats are seeking to fashion themselves as friendly to the energy industry.

One of the most prominent billionaire donors on the left, Steyer was a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. His copious spending on the 2014 midterm elections has drawn frequent comparisons to the Koch brothers, who have flooded conservative campaigns and causes with political money.

Pot hole pain: Street repairs jeopardized by fuzzy political road-building math

The most vicious winter in decades has left urban streets in Wisconsin so scarred with potholes that some look like they belong in developing nations.

“Once you get off the highways, it’s like you’re in Somalia or somewhere — it’s just crazy,” says Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin. His Madison-based organization promotes land use and transportation policies that benefit the state’s economic, environmental and cultural health.

Neglected potholes in Milwaukee also are dragging down the state’s economic future, says Ald. Tony Zielinski, who represents the 14th District.

“The bad roads put Milwaukee at an economic disadvantage when it comes to competing for new businesses,” Zielinski said. “The state is not giving us adequate money to deal with this problem, and Milwaukee is the state’s economic engine. So having a poor infrastructure here hurts all of Wisconsin.”

Hiniker and other “smart-growth” supporters say the potholes also contribute to fatal accidents and wreak havoc on vehicles — blowing out tires, bending wheel rims, throwing out alignments and devastating shock-absorption systems.

But in addition to creating danger and damage, potholes represent government mismanagement of public funds for political purposes at its worst, according to a growing chorus of critics.

Hiniker jokes that the state’s road builders are the best-financed unit of state government. 

Danger and graft

Last year, TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches surface transportation issues, released a report estimating that “unacceptably rough” roads cost a total of $80 billion nationwide, with the average urban driver faced with $377 a year in repairs.

This year’s toll will likely be much higher in urban areas of Wisconsin.

A Milwaukee call center that takes public requests for pothole repairs got 3,680 reports Jan. 1 – March 20 this year. That compares with 2,695 from Jan. 2 to March 20 of last year — a 27-percent increase.

Unfortunately, there’s not much Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can do about the pothole menace. When it comes to paying for road repairs, the state is stingy and has policies that limit the ability of local  officials to address infrastructure problems.

Smart-growth advocates say that Wisconsin and most other state governments overwhelmingly favor new construction over road maintenance, because builders  funnel more cash back into elected officials’ coffers — an assertion that the numbers seem to bear out.

Last year Gov. Scott Walker allocated $3.3 billion in transportation spending, and the lion’s share of it went toward expanding highways, some of which actually have declining traffic, and building new highways where there’s not nearly enough use to justify them, Hiniker said.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee and other urban areas of Wisconsin got the fuzzy end of the funding lollipop. Milwaukee wound up with only $2.4 million for street repairs last year, and while this year the reimbursements might rise by up to 4 percent, it’s not enough to address the magnitude of the problem, according to analysts.

But Hiniker and others stress that Walker and his fellow Republicans can’t be singled out to shoulder the blame for the situation. Misuse of transportation funds to favor road builders is a bipartisan scam — essentially a legal form of graft that’s equally exploited by both Democrats and Republicans, they say.

Fuzzy math and secret gifts

The only way that Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities can get more funding for road repairs is by increasing property taxes. But politics and the state’s lagging economy make that option a non-starter. Instead, cities are stuck with choosing between filling in van-eating sinkholes and maintaining an adequate fire department, according to city halls across the state.

Drivers assume that the various automobile fees and taxes they pay at the pump cover the cost of local road repairs. But by the time that money winds its way through the labyrinthine process of transportation funding, there’s very little left for the neighborhood pothole that nearly killed you.

Hiniker says it’s time for taxpayers to wake up and smell the tar.

As Hiniker tells the story, sometime during the 1980s local municipalities asked the Legislature for permission to raise money to pay for road resurfacing and other such infrastructure repairs. But lawmakers at the time said no, instead promising to reimburse cities and towns for 85 percent of such incurred costs from the state’s segregated Transportation Fund. 

The percentage of reimbursement has steadily declined over the past decade. Now it’s only about 12 percent, Hiniker estimates. It’s hard to tease out the actual number, because the Wisconsin Department of Transportation categorizes work involved in many new construction projects as repairs, even if the “repairs” are made to roads already in good condition.

For instance, the expansion of I-94 from Milwaukee to Kenosha cost $2.2 billion, but only $200 million of that was classified as new construction. All the rest of the cost fell into the category of repair and maintenance.

That’s not the only situation in which transportation-funding math gets fuzzy. Dennis Yaccarino, a budget analyst for the City of Milwaukee, says WisDOT claims to have increased the amount of shared revenue given to municipalities for road repairs. It has, but in a way that fails to benefit cities such as Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.The forumula used is almost impenetrably complicated and gives sprawling rural areas an advantage over heavily trafficked urban locations.

The math goes from fuzzy to utterly opaque when it comes to figuring out how much the state’s two dozen or so road builders give to lawmakers in each election cycle. That’s partly due to new rules that allow for unlimited anonymous donations to third-party campaign activity and partly due to the time-honored practices of bundling donations or making them under the names of friends or family members.

Down the road

Walker’s current state biennial budget contains so many new highway projects that the state would have to borrow about $993 million to pay for them all. Walker has justified piling on the future debt by touting all the construction jobs that the new projects would generate — a position that puts him at odds with himself.

In the past, Walker ruled out using public works to create jobs, implying that they represent a kind of socialism that stymies the free-enterprise system. He’s also opposed projects that burden the future with costs, such as health care expansion. In fact, he cited both objections in one of the most controversial decisions he’s made as governor — killing an inked deal to implement a high-speed rail system from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis. 

Along with that move, Walker turned down more than $800 million in federal funds, as well as all the jobs and economic activity the project would have generated. He also ensured more strain on state highways — strain that could have been avoided if people had another way to travel those heavily trafficked corridors. In fact, polls increasingly show that people, especially young people, prefer alternative travel options over driving.

Ironically, Walker said at the time that maintaining the trains would burden future taxpayers with debt. But, as Hiniker points out, that’s exactly what the governor’s new highway-building projects do. He’s budgeted insufficiently for future repairs, but certainly they will have to be made on every mile of highway that he builds, according to Hiniker.

So, in addition to the debt Walker will incur by borrowing money to pay for highways that experts say are largely unneeded, he’s adding to future budgetary woes.

For more

Visit Wisconsin Highway Waste on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/highwaywastewisconsin?fref=ts

Also read Jim Rowen’s blog about wasteful highway spending:  http://thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/2014/03/fix-potholes-wisconsin-pols-buying-more.html?m=1

Add it up: President Obama says ‘gay’ 272 times in 5 years

President Barack Obama’s unprecedented use of “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual” and “transgender” in his public statements is “contributing immensely to the political mainstreaming of LGBT people and marriage equality within American society,” according to a new report from the Human Rights Campaign.

HRC is the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group.

It’s report, released this week, also examines the public statements of former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

The researchers found that Obama has used the word “gay” more than any of his predecessors — 272 times in five years. The report shows that during Obama’s time in office, support for marriage equality has exploded, from 40 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2013.

“Words matter an enormous amount, and when President Obama uses his platform to declare that LGBT people are just as American as anyone else, it has a huge and historic effect. President Obama has helped the American people get to know LGBT people on a personal level, and evidence suggests that when people know us, they don’t want to discriminate against us,” stated HRC president Chad Griffin. “President Obama has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of LGBT people, and the power of his rhetoric has been an essential part of that legacy.”

HRC reported that:

• Throughout his time in the White House, Obama has said the word “gay” in a public speech, statement or proclamation at least 272 times.

• Obama has used the word “transgender” at least 33 times in speeches, statements and proclamations. He’s used the word “bisexual” at least 28 times, and “lesbian” at least 88 times.

• On the 2012 campaign trail, Obama used the word “gay” 62 times at rallies and fundraisers.

• On the 2012 campaign trail, Mitt Romney spoke about marriage equality only once, and it was in the context of excluding loving, committed same-sex couples from marriage.

• In his two terms in the White House, Clinton used the word “gay” 216 times in public speeches, statements or proclamations, of which 46 instances were regarding gays in the military and 80 instances were regarding Matthew Shepard or hate crime legislation.

• Obama has consistently emphasized that rights and the pursuit of success should not be denied to anyone based on whom they love.

• Since Obama has been in office, the percentage of Americans who support marriage equality has risen from 40 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2013, according to Gallup polling.

• Following Obama’s 2012 endorsement of same-sex marriage, the number of African-Americans who supported marriage equality skyrocketed to 59 percent, up from an average of 41 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

• The rising tide of public support for marriage equality has been reflected in opinion shifts by prominent GOP lawmakers as well. Republican Sens. Rob Portman, Mark Kirk and Lisa Murkowski have all endorsed marriage equality. And in February 2013, more than 150 Republicans signed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit striking down Proposition 8.

“When an elected official uses his or her platform to send a message of dignity and respect, Americans respond,” Griffin stated. “We hope that the growing momentum for equality will ensure future presidents – regardless of their party affiliation – continue this trend.”

On the Web…

www.hrc.org/ObamaReport