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The Shell Game of Politics

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 27 September 2023 in Wisconsin

shell-game-youtubeThe legislative process should involve deliberation and public hearings on proposals before the body, but it’s easy to manipulate. Sen. Smith writes about the “shell game” Republicans play to divert attention from their true agenda.

MADISON - If you’re not familiar with the phrase “shell game,” it’s a trick as old as the hills. A fast-talking swindler places three shells (or cups) on a table and places a ball underneath one of them.

While they distract you with a lot of talk, they quickly move the shells around, too fast to track. Then they ask you to choose under which shell the ball is hidden. If you pick the correct one, you win the prize.

But often your eye has lost track of the moving shells, the fraudster has already pocketed the ball and there is no longer any chance of winning this rigged game. In many ways, politics can be a shell game. It’s certainly full of a lot of fast talking and a lot of misdirection.

For example, take the recent proposal offered by Republicans to fund refurbishing the publically-owned stadium leased to the Milwaukee Brewers. Keep in mind that the owner of the Brewers is a billionaire and the team itself is worth $1.6 billion.

assembly-wi-robin-vosDespite this, Republicans released a proposal offering nearly $700 million to upgrade the stadium. It sure sounds good that $400 million on that is projected to come from the income tax paid by ballplayers.

But remove the $400 million in revenue from players’ income taxes and Wisconsinites are left on the hook to make up the difference.  That means $400 million not going to pay the state’s financial obligations –revenue for local governments, police, fire protection and more.

The Legislature passed historic changes to our shared revenue formula this year, and authorized cash-strapped Milwaukee County and City of Milwaukee the ability to raise sales taxes.

This deal eats into that progress by forcing taxpayers to ante up for the Brewers beautification project. Despite complaining about “government handouts,” they sure do seem eager to support one.

(Oh – and while you’re distracted by that, the plan also removes the local members from the stadium district board. But don’t pay attention to that.)

Another shell game involves gerrymandering. As I described in last week’s column, the Republicans who have maintained their majority by drawing themselves into safe districts have suddenly discovered the “Iowa Model” of redistricting.

Never mind that there have been considerable innovations since that 2013 model was introduced. Or that nonpartisan groups have spent years gathering public input about our legislative maps and they do not support this proposal.

Using language like “nonpartisan” to distract, Republicans don’t want you to notice that they conveniently and surreptitiously omitted safeguards against politicians manipulating legislative district boundaries to stay in power.

But when a swindler sees that you may be catching onto their act, they get even more desperate.

we_wisconsin_senateFor several years now, Republicans have rammed through legislation without genuine debate or public input. Their redistricting proposal is the latest and best example. They introduced it on a Tuesday, voted it through the Assembly on Thursday without holding a public hearing or asking for any public feedback.

jeff-smithThis is the shell game Republicans have been playing for quite a while. Even when a bill gets a committee hearing, Republican legislators have avoided debate and possible amendments in committee by voting with a paper ballot rather than holding in-person meeting(s).

This is one of the most frustrating parts of my job. The Legislature is a deliberative body. It’s our job to debate and discuss legislation and listen to our constituents’ thoughts about potential laws before us. Reducing public access to this process subverts the very work we are sent to Madison to do.

This process may seem boring, but lulling the voters to sleep makes the Republican shell game even slicker. For the unscrupulous, it’s easy to distract citizens with rhetoric so we don’t even notice when they cast debate aside and pull a fast one without public input.

Keep your eye on the ball and tune out the rhetoric.

Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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