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Local Government is Democracy in Action

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 01 February 2023
in Wisconsin

gb-city-hallSenator Smith writes about the different levels of local government and the importance of ensuring that the legislature funds them adequately.

MADISON - “Where do you live?”

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. I live in the United States, in the state of Wisconsin, in Eau Claire County, and in the town of Brunswick. Each of these jurisdictions is a “unit of government” and each has its own powers and responsibilities.

The term “local units of government” can mean cities, villages, towns or counties. Each of these local subdivisions has its own role and its own kind of authority. Each has limits to its powers, as determined by statute, and there are differences in the way each is governed and operated.

Seventy percent of Wisconsin’s population live in a city or village. Cities and villages are both created by the state, which delegates authority to local units of government. Our constitution describes these units of government as “home rule,” which means they have the ability to govern themselves as they see fit, so long as they abide by the state and federal law.

gb-bridge-closeHome rule is meant to ensure that cities and villages are able to be responsive to local concerns. Villages and cities have their own legislative branches, known as city councils or village boards. Members of the council or board can determine policy locally, as long as it does not conflict with the state or federal constitutions.

Many cities, like La Crosse, elect a mayor who works with the council. Others, like Eau Claire, operate with a hired city administrator who answers to the elected city council. In cities, city council members can be elected at-large (representing the entire city) or by districts.

Most Wisconsin villages elect a board president and board members. The Board of Trustees or village board, which acts as the legislative branch, is generally elected at-large.

In contrast, Wisconsin towns are not home rule entities, but their authority is granted by state law. Voters elect a town board, but citizen participation may be exercised at annual meetings and special meetings called for specific purposes.

Voters in a town can exercise direct powers, such as approving a tax levy to fund an improvement for the community or reorganizing local government. State law also allows town voters to grant authority to the town board to acquire property or exercise zoning authority.

I highly recommend you attend one of these meetings. They offer great examples of direct democracy in action. This kind of direct participation in democracy is a rare experience, otherwise only experienced by those who have been duly elected and sworn in.

gb-policeWhile cities and villages have constitutional powers of home rule, and towns offer more power to citizens in special meetings, counties are very different. Counties are the administrative arms of our state government. The members of the legislative body of the county are usually called county supervisors.

As in cities, some counties have an elected county executive, while others have a county administrator appointed by the county board of supervisors. While the method of appointment differs, responsibilities are the same across the state. Counties only perform functions that are expressly allowed or mandated by state statute or the constitution.

The state gives counties responsibility for a broad swath of services mandated by the state. These include road maintenance, jail and law enforcement, court administration, public health, human services, libraries, vital records, land conservation, property tax collection and elections.

jeff-smithThe problem comes when the state’s requirements are not supported by the funding necessary to fulfill those services. In areas like education and criminal justice, there are many examples of the legislature mandating services but not funding them. This impedes the ability of local units of government to provide essential services to our citizens.

As we enter into this year’s budget deliberations, it’s important to consider all that we expect from our local units of government and provide the resources they need to meet those expectations. As state legislators, as county supervisors, as city alderpersons, as village board members and as town supervisors, we are all elected to make sure the citizens of Wisconsin prosper. Let’s make sure we are doing everything we can to make that possible.

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2022 Secretary of State Race Sets $1.1M+ Spending Record

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
User is currently offline
on Friday, 27 January 2023
in Wisconsin

money-behind-politicsMatt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign continues his report on money in politics with the Secretary of State race.

MADISON - Candidates and special interest groups spent a record $1.16 million in the race for Wisconsin secretary of state in 2022, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review shows.

The race drew seven candidates, including three Republicans, two Democrats, and two minor party candidates, who spent a combined $872,324. The leading spender was Republican challenger Amy Loudenbeck, who dropped $501,356. She survived the GOP primary to face incumbent Democrat Doug La Follette, who spent $229,689 and won reelection.

Five groups spent a total of $288,824 in the race.

One group, Election Integrity PAC, spent $192,868 to support one of the Republican candidates who lost in the Aug. 9 primary to Loudenbeck.

The four remaining groups – Voces de la FronteraBlue Sky WaukeshaNextGen Climate Action, and BLOC PAC – spent a total of $95,956 to support La Follette or his Democratic primary opponent.

Spending in the 2022 contest eclipsed spending by candidates and groups in previous secretary of state races by a lot. In 2018, the four candidates spent a total of $26,782 with no spending by outside groups. In 2014, eight candidates spent a combined $122,126 with no outside spending. And in 2010, the candidates spent $1,126 and one electioneering group dropped $71.

Allies of former President Trump, who has falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him due to voter fraud, sought to put pro-Trump supporters in key election posts running up to the 2024 presidential election. Trump has announced he will be a presidential candidate in 2024.

Secretary of State races in Wisconsin and throughout the country drew more candidates and outside spending in 2022 than most previous elections because that office oversees or certifies election results in numerous states, but not Wisconsin.

During the campaign, Loudenbeck said she would welcome the office having a larger role in administering elections in Wisconsin.

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Groups Outspent Candidates in Record $14M AG Race

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
User is currently offline
on Thursday, 26 January 2023
in Wisconsin

justice-statueIn Wisconsin these days, just about every race for every position is breaking a record in campaign spending. Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports on the race for Wisconsin attorney general.

MADISON - Outside electioneering groups outspent the candidates in last fall’s record $14 million race for Wisconsin attorney general, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

Nineteen special interest groups doled out $7.58 million (see Table below), including $4.18 million to support Republican candidates in the primary and general election and $3.4 million to back incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, who won reelection.

The five candidates – Kaul and four Republicans – spent a combined $6.42 million with Kaul leading the pack at $4.8 million. Kaul’s final ballot opponent, Eric Toney, spent $962,884. The three other GOP candidates spent a combined $661,013 before Toney sidelined them in the Aug. 9 primary.

The total spent by groups and candidates in the 2022 attorney general’s race came to $13,996,086, which beat the previous record in 2018 by just $949.

The top-spending outside groups in the race were:

Republican Attorneys General Association, in Washington, D.C., which spent $3.11 million through a state political action committee called Wisconsin Freedom PAC . The group spent its money on television and online ads and mailings that accused Kaul of being soft on crime and cutting funds for new officer training and the State Crime Lab;

Democratic Attorneys General Association, in Washington, D.C., which spent $1.9 million through an independent expenditure committee called DAGA People’s Lawyer Project . The sponsored television and online advertising that said Toney would prosecute doctors and nurses for performing abortions and supported making the procedure a felony with no exceptions for rape or incest;

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed state group which spent nearly $550,000 on canvassing, mailings, and digital and radio advertising to support Adam Jarchow, one of the GOP candidates Toney defeated in the primary.

To learn how much was spent by all of the outside groups involved in Wisconsin’s 2022 race for attorney general, please see the table below. For more information about the groups and their electioneering activities, check out their profiles in our Hijacking Campaign 2022 feature.

Spending by Outside Special Interest Groups in the 2022 Attorney General’s Race

Wisconsin Freedom PAC (Republican Attorneys General Association) $3,114,213
DAGA People’s Lawyer Project (Democratic Attorneys General Association) $1,899,564
Americans for Prosperity $549,691
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin Political Fund $474,952
Badger Values PAC $407,483
A Better Wisconsin Together Political Fund $400,000
For Our Future $264,480
Wisconsin Conservation Voters Independent Expenditure Committee $193,492
Voces de la Frontera Action Inc. $72,712
Wisconsin Family Action $69,102
BLOC PAC (Black Leaders Organizing for Communities) $43,251
Leaders Igniting Transformation Action Fund $18,722
NRA Political Victory Fund – Federal PAC $18,674
Volunteers for Agriculture (Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation) $15,261
AFSCME Working Families Fund $14,716
Blue Sky Waukesha $11,799
NextGen Climate Action Committee $8,053
Power to the Polls Wisconsin $737
Human Rights Campaign Equality Votes PAC $32
TOTAL $7,576,934
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Fifty Years After Roe, The Struggle Continues

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 25 January 2023
in Wisconsin

abortion-2022Senator Smith writes about changing policies and attitudes towards reproductive health throughout America’s history. Abortion is healthcare, and the right to an abortion must be protected in Wisconsin.

NEW BRUNSWICK, WI - As Americans we take pride that we live in a land of freedom and opportunity. Every July 4th we light fireworks to remind ourselves of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 that General Order No. 3 was issued, finally proclaiming the freedom of enslaved people in Texas. And on August 18th, we celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which affirmed the right of women to vote.

This past Sunday marked the anniversary of another such occasion. On January 22nd of 1973, the United States Supreme Court passed down a decision that gave women the freedom to determine their own path when it came to pregnancy.

While we’ve been talking a lot about Roe v. Wade, particularly this week, it’s one event in the long history of reproductive health in America. In fact, there was nothing particularly controversial about abortion in the early years of this country. Reproductive healthcare, including abortions, was the vocation of midwives, a profession dominated by women.

But as the medical field grew increasingly professionalized, a coalition of male doctors led a movement that resulted in many state governments outlawing abortion across the board. By 1910 abortion was banned nationwide. Abortion care was unavailable to many women, with the exception of those who could afford to travel to skirt the law.

abortion-2022-zoe-thayer-sauk-cityWomen’s lives and careers could be transformed forever by an unexpected pregnancy. Some women died due to unsafe and unregulated abortion procedures. Layers of restrictions on the rights of women kept them in the domestic sphere.

These restrictions were based on the idea that the purpose of a woman’s life was to bring forth and nurture children. Never mind any responsibility that men have when bringing new life into their families; women were expected to shoulder most of the work at home. Unpaid “women’s work” was not valued at the same level as so-called “productive” labor, and often the full-time work of raising a family was taken for granted.

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, prohibiting “discrimination … on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” that women were finally officially treated by the law as equals in the workforce. During the 1960s, many states pushed to update their abortion laws.

In 1973, the Roe decision was handed down. Reproductive healthcare allowed women freedoms that had been the domain of only men, including the ability to pursue career outside the home.

Even then, progress was incremental and often painfully slow. In 1975, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Taylor v. Louisiana that not including women in juries violated the right to be tried as a jury of your peers. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became federal law, making it illegal for an employer to fire an employee due to their pregnancy. The Uniform Marital Property Act of 1983 honored homemakers’ valuable contributions to the family by protecting their property rights. Each of these changes built on each other, giving women greater autonomy in our society.

jeff-smithBut now, 50 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, an activist Supreme Court reversed the ruling. In states like Wisconsin, which have laws on the books banning abortions, this opens up doctors to prosecution for providing basic reproductive healthcare to pregnant people. This especially impacts people with limited resources, who have lost so much opportunity to control their own lives and futures.

In this week’s column, I’ve taken you through centuries of changing policies and attitudes towards reproductive health in this country. It’s been a long road getting here, and we’ve still got a long way to go. I know it’s easy to become discouraged when circumstances set us back, but our history shows us that each victory will bring us a step closer. Reproductive freedom must be once again protected in Wisconsin and across the nation.

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Citizens United at 13

Posted by Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
User is currently offline
on Friday, 20 January 2023
in Wisconsin

vote-citizens-united-protestMADISON - Saturday marks the thirteenth anniversary of the notorious Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to big and dark money in our politics.

That decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allows corporations, other groups, and super-rich individuals to spend unlimited amounts to tell you who to vote for or not for, so long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates.

Citizens United was the obstetrician that delivered us SuperPACs, but they’re not babies anymore. They’re monsters.

And along with a few other Supreme Court decisions, especially the McCutcheon decision of 2014, which said the government could put no aggregate limit on the amount that rich folks could spend in our elections, Citizens United has turned our politics into a playground for billionaires.

Just look at the recent midterms.

According to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness, billionaires had already “pumped an unprecedented $881 million into the federal midterm elections [five weeks before the election], distorting our democracy by drowning out the voices of regular Americans. That’s already much more money than billionaires contributed during the entire length of the 2018 midterm election cycle, the previous record.”

The report noted that Republican billionaires are outspending Democratic ones: “GOP forces are enjoying a 3-2 advantage in billionaire donations.”

Even if they weren’t, that’s not the point.

The point is this: Our politics shouldn’t be a tug of war between billionaires on the right and billionaires on the left. In a real democracy, we’d all have an equal tug on that rope.

But we don’t because of the gross maldistribution of wealth in this country.

And we don’t because of Citizens United and a raft of other bad decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court dating back to the nineteenth century on corporate personhood.

Here in Wisconsin, we can see the nasty consequences of Citizens United.

In 2010, outside spending in our fall elections for governor and the legislature and other non-federal races came to just under $20 million. Last year, it soared to over $90 million, with a lot of this money coming from out of state.

This outside spending, blessed by Citizens United, makes a mockery of the ideal that we all have an equal voice in our democracy. And the money that comes from out of state undercuts the ideal of local self-governance.

The problem of big and dark money in our politics in Wisconsin got worse in 2015 when the Republican-dominated state legislature (thanks, largely, to gerrymandering) rewrote our campaign finance law. The new law, signed by Scott Walker, tore down the de facto $10,000 limit on how much individuals could give to those political parties. So now billionaires from across the country are writing enormous checks to the Democratic and Republican parties here.

We do not have self-rule when the super-rich can spend unlimited amounts of money in our political arena.

We must overturn Citizens United and all its ugly relatives.

And the best way to do that is to amend the U.S. Constitution and proclaim, finally, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech.

Here in Wisconsin, the grassroots group Wisconsin United to Amend has been working prodigiously over the last decade getting one local community after another to pass referendums or resolutions in favor of such an amendment. At last count, 169 communities have signed on.

It will take more work, here in Wisconsin and around the country, to get this done.

But it must be done if we are to have a genuine democracy.

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