Unless you attend local chamber of commerce breakfasts, regularly read this or some other Wisconsin newspaper, or closely follow the workings of government, you probably have never heard of Todd Berry.
Berry recently retired after nearly 25 years heading the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that monitors state tax and spending issues. Berry has been a tremendous resource for journalists and others striving to transform the dizzying array of numbers that come out of Madison into something most can understand. It’s not always easy or sexy, but it is important.
Berry’s farewell column appeared in last Sunday’s Leader-Telegram; it’s a must-read for those concerned about the unfortunate turn state government has taken. Berry also offers ideas we all should think about if we hope to regain control of our supposed system of self-government.
Wisconsin is one of “about a dozen states with a full-time, professional Legislature,” Berry wrote. “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.”
That got me thinking whether we need a full-time Legislature, especially after reading another recent article about two Republican state legislators who resigned to take jobs with the Gov. Scott Walker administration.
So how will these two resignations affect state governance? Answer: Not at all, the story explained.
“The immediate impact of the departures will be negligible, given that the Legislature is expected to be in session a few days in 2018 before adjourning for the year in early spring,” the Associated Press story explained.
“A few days?” What other job can you think of that every other year it doesn’t make any difference if the person is working? Walker and others like to point out that government aid programs should be a “bridge, not a hammock.” Being in session only “a few days” this year isn’t a hammock … it’s a king-sized bed, complete with a nice salary and great fringe benefits.
The response for those favoring the current system is predictable. They’ll remind us cynics that even though they’re not in session most of the time, state lawmakers are busy helping constituents resolve issues, researching bills, directing their staffs, meeting in committees and then campaigning for re-election. It’s hardly a vacation, they’ll argue.
If our system truly was representative, that would be fine, except increasingly, it’s not.
The main culprit is gerrymandered districts, which the Republicans pulled off after the 2010 census with surgeon-like precision. Many state Assembly and Senate districts are safely under partisan control. The only requirement is that candidates in “safe” districts kowtow to the party line or risk being ousted by a more obedient party partisan in the August primary.
Also helping to ensure our government is representative in name only is the top-down management style of both political parties that effectively mutes any possible independent voices. Anyone who dares deviate from what party leaders ordain risks their political future, which with a professional, full-time Legislature, means their jobs in many cases.
Secrecy makes the job of ensuring lock-step butt-kissing of leadership easier. That’s why the Legislature exempted itself from the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, which local governments must obey or risk sanction. The exemption enables legislative party leadership to get their members in a room out of view of the public or press, lay out how members are to vote on each issue, then go into the chamber and execute the preordained script. Views from the minority party are dismissed out of hand.
This is not meant to be an attack on individual legislators. Most of the ones I met through the years from both parties are decent, honest people who strive for effective government, even as they differ on their viewpoints.
It’s the framework they work under that’s broken. Making the Legislature adhere to the Open Meetings Law and putting redistricting in the hands of someone other than politicians are two ways we could help prevent the foxes from guarding the chicken coop. Campaign finance reform also is badly needed, but the status quo is the most sacred of cows.
Berry offered many other points to ponder in his final column, including considering term limits and serious election reform.
Berry longs for changes that might “return us to an era where public service, rather than a political career, motivated a run for the Legislature. (Reforms) would also bring back to the Capitol greater experience in local government, small business and parenting.”
Berry’s common sense and insight will be missed. Hopefully others outside and — we dare to dream — inside government will carry on his vision for badly needed reform.
Huebscher, a contributing columnist and former editor of the Leader-Telegram, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.