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Citizens United at 13

Posted by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Matt Rothschild
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Matt Rothschild
Matt Rothschild is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a
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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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Don’t Take Amending Our Constitution Lightly

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, 18 January 2023
in Wisconsin

assembly-wi-robin-vosSenator Smith writes about Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment process and expresses concerns about recklessly amending our state Constitution.

MADISON - For any laws not governed by federal law or the U.S. Constitution, Wisconsin’s Constitution serves as the ultimate guide when crafting legislation. Our Constitution is sacred – it’s the framework for our state government. It determines protections and guides our justice system in how laws should be interpreted.

If the Constitution is a title, statutes (state law) are subtitles, providing clarity and specifics in the way we interpret expectations set forth in our Constitution. Statutes begin as legislation, and in order to become law, must be passed by both chambers of the Legislature. The Legislature then sends these bills to the Governor, who may veto part or all of the bill or sign it into law. The Governor’s administration executes the law and the court system interprets laws when confusion arises. Wisconsin’s system of checks and balances is modeled after our U.S. Constitution.

This process is designed so that statutes can be more specific and responsive to recent developments in our society. Your members of the State Legislature are sent to Madison to do just that.

When a legislator introduces a bill, the legislature reviews the proposal through debate and public hearings. If a bill meets opposition, we can add specific amendments to the bill or we can re-introduce the legislation, modifying the bill to take into consideration what we have learned through the deliberative process.

Even once passed, it’s common for the legislature to re-examine a law once we’ve had a chance to evaluate its impact on the public. Laws written decades ago may not apply to current circumstances, or need updating to work in the world we inhabit now. When a statute is out-of-date, it can be revised and updated. Statutes are not static; they can easily be changed with the input of our citizens.

constitutional-conventionThe Constitution is not so quickly and easily revised. To pass a constitutional amendment, the legislature must pass it as a resolution through two consecutive legislative sessions. The language of the bill, without any of the context provided by the legislative process, is then placed on the ballot for voters to approve or reject in the next general election.

The constitutional amendment process is designed to deal in broad terms, not specifics. There is a difference between passing a constitutional amendment that enumerates a specific right and passing one requiring specific procedures to be changed. That’s why we must hold the Constitution to a higher standard.

In recent years, I fear the respect for our Constitution has been eroded. Legislators are too quick to amend the constitution, often for purely procedural reasons, including the desire to do an end-run around the very checks and balances that protect us from hasty changes to the Constitution. Checks and balances make democracy messy, but they safeguard us from poorly vetted laws.

When political initiatives are passed as constitutional amendments, we miss the opportunity to truly examine the changes that an amendment may make in the courts and in the daily lives of our citizens. Wording is important, and sometimes the slightest change may have broad and unintended consequences. When a dramatic change is made to our constitution that turns out to be harmful to our citizens, it is often too late and too difficult to fix easily.

This session, it appears that the Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the legislature have decided they would rather play fast and loose with our State Constitution, rather than work with Governor Evers. By the time you see this column, it’s likely that such a resolution – or resolutions – have already been hurriedly passed.

jeff-smithAs your State Senator, I take the trust you have placed in me very seriously. Using the Constitution as a means to sacrifice bipartisanship for political expediency is wrong and dangerous. When actions are taken that affect the lives of families across Wisconsin, it’s important to do it thoughtfully, with an eye towards future implications.

I encourage all of you who read this column to stay engaged with what’s going on as these political maneuvers make their way through the Legislature, including the attitude of noncooperation shown by the majority party. Let’s make sure that we don’t take amending our Constitution lightly.

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Flat Tax Helps Rich Get Richer and Solves Zero Problems

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, 11 January 2023
in Wisconsin

executive-moneySenator Smith writes about Republican flat tax proposals. Instead of providing tax relief for those who need it the least, Wisconsin has an opportunity to invest our surplus in targeted programs and put money in the pockets of the middle class.

MADISON - In the last year, Republicans talked a lot about a flat tax. They call a flat tax a “simplification” of our tax system, but that’s a simplification of the truth. They make it sound good, but in reality it shifts a bigger share of the tax burden onto middle class families.

So why do Republicans want it? Just last week, Senate Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said, “We have the resources to do this.” Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Why spend our hard-earned surplus on the wealthy when we face so many challenges?

Our income tax system only applies higher rates to “marginal” income, or income in excess of the base tax rate. This means wealthy residents pay the same as the rest of us on a certain amount earned, any income in excess of that is taxed at a slightly higher rate. Lowering the rate at which marginal income is taxed provides a windfall to the wealthy, while passing the middle class and the working poor by.

working-poorIt seems intuitive that the same tax rate across the board makes everything “equal,” but “equal” does not mean “equitable.” The working poor and middle class already pay a greater percentage of their total income when it comes to sales and property tax. These types of taxes concentrate the tax burden on the very poorest.

Let’s do some quick math for the Republicans’ 3.54% flat tax scheme. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin’s average estimated individual income is $53,120 per year. That equates to roughly $2,076 in taxes paid for single filers (adjusting income to reflect the state sliding scale standard deduction and personal exemptions). Someone making $1 million per year is paying $69,537 in income taxes. With a flat tax, someone earning the state average income would see a $484 tax cut, or about a 23% cut. Someone earning a million would see a $34,161 tax cut which equals just under a 50% tax cut.

The broader numbers further illustrate this. As cited by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) projected the effect of Wisconsin moving to a 3.54% flat tax. This proposal resulted in enormous gains for the richest taxpayers, with a corresponding dramatic drop in state revenues. Under this tax shell game, state revenue would drop by $5.59 billion in the first year and $3.86 billion per year after the first.

Spending $5.59 billion of Wisconsin’s hard-earned $7 billion surplus on a big tax break for the rich doesn’t curb inflation. It doesn’t add more workers to Wisconsin businesses. It solves zero problems Wisconsin currently faces. We must maintain an equitable tax system and make the investments Wisconsin needs.

door-county-peopleThankfully, Governor Evers continues to advocate for a tax cut targeting the middle class. Wisconsinites want a middle class tax cut and problems solved, not handouts to the wealthy.

Accepting the $5.59 billion hit to state revenues means less funding available for roads, bridges, public education, higher education and healthcare. Rather than disinvesting in local communities, we should provide them with the resources they need. This means fully funding our public schools and making sure local governments have the money they need to run essential emergency services. We can do this – as long as we don’t give tax breaks to those who need them the least.

jeff-smithUsing the surplus for targeted investments and putting the money in middle class pockets with progressive tax reform will keep our dollars here, not in some off-shore hedge fund for rich people. We must look to the future. If wealthy people weasel their way out of their fair share with a flat tax, that leaves the middle class picking up the pieces when revenues fall.

We haven’t seen specifics on this proposal as of the writing of this column. As details of this proposal are released, it’s my hope these issues are examined thoroughly. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to fully vet this legislation and ensure taxpayers get fairness when they file their state taxes in coming years.

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You Deserve Representation You Can Trust

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, 04 January 2023
in Wisconsin

wi-senate-swearing-inSenator Smith writes about the importance of the deliberative process of democracy and how vital it is that the public’s representatives keep the trust given to them by their constituents.

MADISON - This week those of us elected by voters to represent you in various offices, including the State Legislature, take the oath of office to begin our service. The oath I gave, as stated in our Wisconsin constitution, went like this: “I, Jeff Smith, swear that I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Wisconsin, and will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office of State Senate to the best of my ability. So help me God.”

Before the start of the first session day, all members elected this past November formally take that same oath in an honorable ceremony. On Inauguration Day, there is a lot of good feeling within the Capitol. It’s a time of celebration and fellowship, surrounded by family and well-wishers. It is my hope that this feeling of camaraderie can last beyond that single day.

There is often disagreement on how to deliver on the promise of moving “Forward,” as our state motto says. Disagreement can be constructive when it leads to compromise, yielding decisions that make us a stronger state and union. When elected officials betray your trust and ignore our purpose of service, we find ourselves locked in partisan bickering that gets us nowhere.

high-voltage-lines-farmsIn times where the people’s elected representatives show little progress and voters don’t see any agreement or compromise, it can be easy to lose the trust you may have had when you cast your ballot in November. In fact, it seems that the common belief is that it is normal for our elected bodies to only squabble and point fingers rather than work toward accomplishing anything.

wisconsin-senateWhen elected officials lie to constituents it reflects on every one of us. Take the egregious example happening in New York, where the person who won a congressional seat from Long Island lied about his education, religion, family background and more to get elected. Too often the reaction is to shrug, scowl and accept his behavior as normal. It is easy to become discouraged, falling into the expectation that you can’t trust any legislator on the state or national level because they “all lie” anyway.

Of course it isn’t fair to judge every person in elected office based on one miscreant. Too often we highlight exceptions to the rule, even when those exceptions are not representative of the vast majority. We hear about those who commit fraud, when most of us are honest and straightforward. It is those who do not behave as expected that get outsize coverage and social media shares. We don’t get to know much about the people who just do what they were hired to do and stay out of trouble. It may even be the case in your workplace that one bad apple reflects badly on everyone else diligently doing their jobs.

jeff-smithI say all this so you might judge your elected officials from either side of the aisle with discretion and give us a chance to prove that most of us really do serve with good intent. At the same time, we have the opportunity at the start of a new session, right after we swore an oath to serve our state, to hold onto the trust you might have in our abilities to do the job expected of us.

That’s why I’ll do all I can to be open to legitimate and reasonable debate of ideas. Not all ideas are universally accepted as good ones. That is why ideas deserve a chance for public hearing and discussion. Once we start with that attitude, we may have a chance to hold onto the congeniality we felt on the first day we took our oath.

Thank you for your trust in me as your state senator. Throughout this year, I’ll continue to update you on legislative happenings, and my door is always open. Email me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , call my office at 608-266-8546 or drop in to the Capitol if you’re in Madison. I hope to hear from you as we begin another year of working on behalf of you, the citizens of the great state of Wisconsin.

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A New Year Means Renewed Priorities

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, 28 December 2022
in Wisconsin

high-voltage-lines-farmsSenator Smith writes about priorities for the upcoming legislative session and looks forward to introducing legislation to improve the quality of life of Wisconsin families.

BRUNSWICK, WI - Another year has flown by. As we celebrate the holidays I hope you have a chance to relax and enjoy time with your family and friends. While there is much to reflect on from 2022, it’s also time to look forward to 2023.

Talking with constituents throughout the year, I know that Wisconsinites want to set the bar high. This year, we have a record-setting budget surplus that we can invest back into our communities to help them thrive. As I consider the upcoming legislative session and the many conversations I had this year, I have a wish list of what I’d like to see accomplished in 2023.

I hope that we can set politics aside to talk about the important issues, like what we can do to protect our citizens. A longstanding goal of mine is to ensure that we fully fund testing for PFAS in all of Wisconsin’s wells. At the very least, you should know what is in the water you cook with and drink. Testing our water will give us the data we need to identify next steps, so we can ensure safe water for all.

school-bus-kidsWe must finally replace the 30-year-old failed school funding formula with one that is fair for every child in Wisconsin. When school districts fall short on funds, local taxpayers have to shoulder the increased cost. In the past three decades, school districts whose residents have voted to raise their property tax rates have done better than those who can’t afford to, leading to terrible inequity between districts. Channeling money from our budget surplus to meet shortfalls in schools is an investment in our children that will pay dividends down the road.

Local governments are encountering similar problems funding fire protection and law enforcement. The state provides tax dollars to local government through the shared revenue program to fund basic emergency services. Unfortunately, sometimes the share of revenue allocated to these purposes isn’t enough. We can help local governments meet the needs of their citizens by restoring local control, which allows local governments to make operational decisions that keep essential services adequately funded.

marijuana-hemp-dairy-farmers-wiSome life-changing policies can even bring in revenue. Marijuana legalization will increase the quality of life for many. Legalizing marijuana will increase revenue from legal sales while ensuring a safer product. Wisconsin polling shows voters strongly support legalizing marijuana. Many municipalities passed advisory referenda this fall in favor of legalization. I believe the votes are there in the Legislature to pass a legalization bill, with only a few holdouts standing in the way.

vote-47-mbWhen voters act via referendum and vote directly on the issues, we bypass the politics. Voting rights and reproductive rights are examples of where fears about political backlash have stalled efforts to follow the voters’ wishes. Support for referenda questions is bipartisan. I introduced legislation last session to allow Wisconsin citizens to pass binding referenda questions into law and I will continue pushing for this change next year.

Final Five Voting is an idea that resonated with citizens across the political spectrum. Final Five Voting takes power away from the political parties and puts it in your hands. There’s a great explanation about how Final Five Voting works online at I introduced this bill alongside Republican co-authors last session, and look forward to doing so again.

jeff-smithEven in a time when politics have become so polarized, there is much to be done and reason to feel optimistic. It’s very easy to fall into the narrative that we are too divided to get anything done. But the truth is that when we slow down, stay calm and listen to each other, we can learn a lot.

One thing we learn is that we care about many of the same things – our children, our safety, our quality of life and so much more. I hope you will join me in starting the coming year with a positive attitude and a love for our country, our fellow humans and our furry friends. Happy New Year, Wisconsin!

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