Jan 4, 201812:29 PMOpen Mic
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How Wisconsin government and politics have changed — and what to do about it
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As I retire after almost 25 years as president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, I can’t help but reflect on how Wisconsin government and politics have changed over the decades. Perhaps the most significant change that has occurred is the increasingly partisan and polarized nature of dialogue and decision-making in the public arena.
Part of this is due to the deterioration of our national discourse, but part is also due to Wisconsin being one of about a dozen states with a full-time, professional legislature. What makes us different from most of these states dominated by career politicians, however, is scale. California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania are populous, urban, and large. By comparison, Wisconsin is relatively small.
Regardless of size, many of these states have the same problems: take-no-prisoners partisanship; state budgets that are often tardy and almost always narrowly balanced, usually with gimmicks and timing tricks; official financial statements that show GAAP deficits; and subpar bond ratings. Wisconsin fits the description to a “T,” regardless of party in control.
This is not an accident. In professional legislatures, the psychology changes: The goal is to keep one’s job, and that means getting reelected. Difficult tax and budget problems are papered over, pushed past the next election.
In career legislatures, such as ours, power becomes increasingly centralized in the hands of a few party leaders. Party discipline is strictly enforced, and dissension is not tolerated. Legislative leaders have tremendous power because they control the political fate — and, therefore, career — of their backbenchers. They name committee chairs and members; they send bills to committees and determine whether they will receive serious consideration; they influence and direct special interest campaign donations; and, in some cases, punish uncooperative caucus members by encouraging primary opposition.
The nature of primary elections and Wisconsin elections generally is part of the significant change that has occurred in our politics. In recent decades, when given the opportunity, both Democrats and Republicans have “gerrymandered” legislative districts in hopes of achieving partisan advantage. The Democrats did so in 1983; the GOP, in 2012.
The fallout is evident, as the 2016 elections indicate. After the August primary, about half of state legislators were effectively reelected, with no November challenger, or only a token minor-party opponent. Lawmakers need not be accountable to voters if there is no ballot choice. And lack of accountability is an invitation to incumbent arrogance, abuse of party power, and even corruption.
But the problem with our elections goes deeper. Because of how legislative districts are drawn and because of where people choose to live, few districts are competitive, with seats regularly changing party hands. That makes August party primaries pivotal. They are low-turnout affairs dominated by true believers and party activists, and subject to monied intervention by special interests. To win a primary in Democratic Dane County, a candidate moves to the far left; to win a primary in Republican Waukesha County, the reverse is true: GOP hopefuls compete for a subset of voters on the right.
Thus, candidates who win primaries are committed partisans who owe their careers to single-issue or ideologically motivated voters. Arriving in Madison, they have no incentive to work with members across the aisle, or even members of their party from more diverse districts. They need only answer to the few who elected them.
With the two legislative parties populated with such members, the result is to be expected: partisan bickering, “gotcha politics,” and inability to compromise.