Todd Berry, the retiring president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, hopefully opened a few eyes with a farewell column he sent the state media last week.
He stated the obvious about how politics in the state have changed over recent decades — becoming increasingly partisan and polarized and with a deteriorating civil discourse that makes it virtually impossible to cooperate.
He went further, though, and called out what he thinks may be at least partially responsible for this sad state of affairs — Wisconsin's full-time Legislature, something I've been saying here for years.
Berry noted that Wisconsin is one of about a dozen states with a full-time, professional Legislature, but is among the smallest. Others, like California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, are mainly urban and large.
But, he added, all these full-time legislatures have the same characteristics: take no-prisoners partisanship, state budgets that are often tardy and almost always narrowly balanced, subpar bond ratings, and official financial statements that show deficits when generally accepted accounting principles are applied.
The "full-time" legislature phenomenon took hold in Wisconsin back in the 1980s, not long after the state went to a four-year term for governor. Legislators became concerned that the four-year term was giving the executive branch too much power and the Legislature needed to assert itself. Soon legislators began adding to their staffs and giving themselves pay raises that made it possible to make a living on legislative pay and benefits alone.
As I've noted over the years, Berry pointed out that the psychology changes among professional legislators. The goal is to keep one's job, which means getting re-elected. Different tax and budget problems are "papered over," he noted — pushed past the next election.
Additionally, he continued, "power becomes 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 back-benchers."
The WTA's retiring president went on to point out other problems that have led to political dysfunction — gerrymandering, for instance, that has led to noncompetitive elections where the real contests occur among party activists in primaries. That, in turn, discourages compromise among those who wind up holding office.
He went on to offer some solutions, not all of which I can agree with, but certainly worth consideration and debate. Among them is a nonpartisan, citizen-driven approach to redistricting, but with changes in the primary system to allow voters to switch parties on their ballots. Rank voting is another of his suggestions, which would give voters a chance to vote for multiple candidates in the voter's order of preference.
The wildest of his "fixes" would be to completely revamp the state Senate, making it a nonpartisan body that would be elected in the spring and serve as a real balance on the Assembly. Now, it's just a place to which members of the Assembly graduate as seats open.
Berry has served nearly 25 years in an organization that's devoted to studying how politics work and how the government spends taxpayers' money.
His observations deserve serious consideration.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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