Todd A. Berry
Op Ed

Wisconsin One of Most Partisan States

Result is gerrymandering, budget gimmicks and subpar bond ratings.

By - Jan 5th, 2018 10:13 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Rosina Peixoto.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Rosina Peixoto.

As I retire after almost 25 years as President of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, I can’t help but reflect on how Wisconsin government and politics have changed over the decades. Perhaps the most significant change that has occurred is the increasingly partisan and polarized nature of dialogue and decision-making in the public arena.

Part of this is due to the deterioration of our national discourse, but part is also due to Wisconsin being one of about a dozen states with a full-time, professional legislature. 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.

Regardless of size, many of these states have the same problems: take-no-prisoners partisanship; state budgets that are often tardy and almost always narrowly balanced, usually with gimmicks and timing tricks; official financial statements that show GAAP deficits; and subpar bond ratings. Wisconsin fits the description to a “T,” regardless of party in control.

This is not an accident. In professional legislatures, the psychology changes: The goal is to keep one’s job, and that means getting reelected. Difficult tax and budget problems are papered over, pushed past the next election.

In career legislatures, such as ours, power becomes increasingly 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 backbenchers. They name committee chairs and members; they send bills to committees and determine whether they will receive serious consideration; they influence and direct special-interest campaign donations; and, in some cases, punish uncooperative caucus members by encouraging primary opposition.

The nature of primary elections and Wisconsin elections generally is part of the significant change that has occurred in our politics. In recent decades, when given the opportunity, both Democrats and Republicans have “gerrymandered” legislative districts in hopes of achieving partisan advantage. The Democrats did so in 1983; the GOP, in 2012.

The fallout is evident, as the 2016 elections indicate. After the August primary, about half of state legislators were effectively reelected, with no November challenger, or only a token minor-party opponent. Lawmakers need not be accountable to voters if there is no ballot choice. And lack of accountability is an invitation to incumbent arrogance, abuse of party power, and even corruption.

But the problem with our elections goes deeper. Because of how legislative districts are drawn and because of where people choose to live, few districts are competitive, with seats regularly changing party hands. That makes August party primaries pivotal. They are low-turnout affairs dominated by true believers and party activists, and subject to monied intervention by special interests. To win a primary in Democratic Dane County, a candidate moves to the far left; to win a primary in Republican Waukesha County, the reverse is true: GOP hopefuls compete for a subset of voters on the right.

Thus, candidates who win primaries are committed partisans, who owe their careers to single-issue or ideologically motivated voters. Arriving in Madison, they have no incentive to work with members across the aisle, or even members of their party from more diverse districts. They need only answer to the few who elected them.

With the two legislative parties populated with such members, the result is to be expected: partisan bickering, “gotcha politics,” and inability to compromise.

Wisconsin’s growing labor force shortage and transportation finance impasse illustrate the adverse effect of career politics. The argument for a full-time professional legislature was its ability to anticipate and confront emerging challenges. However, whether the issue is tax policy, transportation, changing demography, fiscal management, school finance, or higher education, Wisconsin state government—under both parties—has been largely unable to think long-term and strategically.

Critique of state government is easy. Undoing decades of combative partisan conflict among career politicians is not. Regulatory tinkering with elections or campaign spending addresses symptoms, but real change rests on lasting structural change.

A first step is a nonpartisan, citizen-driven approach to legislative redistricting. This will only be effective, however, if partisan primaries are ended in favor of all-candidate, cross-party primaries. Election changes might also include reducing state restrictions on minor candidates, instituting rank voting (where voters rank candidate choices), and adopting Illinois’ discarded use of multi-member districts and “bullet voting.” The latter would help elect an occasional Democrat from Waukesha or Republican from Madison.

Returning to a part-time citizen legislature is also key but must involve more than ending full-time salaries and benefits, cutting staff, or even instituting term limits. A citizen legislature also requires shorter, fixed-length sessions, and a larger assembly so that districts are smaller, easier to represent, and less costly to contest. Committee work by electronic means becomes important.

The state senate might also be reformed to restore the founders’ vision of the upper house as a true check and balance on the lower house. Wisconsin’s senate has become mostly a means to prolonging an assembly career. Electing senators in the spring on a nonpartisan ballot to a single eight-year or two six-year terms might also ensure a more deliberative and independent body.

Changing institutional structure and process might help diversify the ranks of professional legislators and return us to an era when public service, rather than a political career, motivated a run for the legislature. It would also bring back to the Capitol greater experience in local government, small business, and parenting.

The ideas offered here are not panaceas but could promote discussion of how to restore Wisconsin’s tradition of civil discourse, mutual respect, and citizen governance.

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author. The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, and its successor the Wisconsin Policy Forum, does not engage in lobbying or advocate for specific policies.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

7 thoughts on “Op Ed: Wisconsin One of Most Partisan States”

  1. Little Boots says:

    We have one chance left, in November 2018. However between all the Big Corporate money Walker and republicans receive from mega rich out of state donors and seeing how they have rigged elections andvdestroyed democracy in the state it will be nearly impossible. Hopefully the supreme court will declare WI republican gerrymandering unconstitutional because at it stands now, even if democrats win in a landslide, republicans will still take more seats and maintain their rigged, phony and illegitmate control over state government. That’s how gerrymandering works. Walker and the republicans are con-artists and charlatans. They need to kicked out of office in November. If they don’t go, any decent, honest, hard working person left in the state must leave.

  2. Melody Carranza says:

    Agreed, I may be heading home to CA.

  3. WashCoRepub says:

    Liberals now talking about moving out of Wisconsin if they suffer further losses in Nov.?? Now THAT increases my motivation! Heck, if this kind of talk keeps up, I’ll be volunteering to drive people to the polls…

    May I suggest California or Illinois? They seem to go along well with your governing philosophy, and soon their tax rates will climb to ‘appropriate’ levels.

  4. Melody Carranza says:

    Wash Cnty. The pit of intelligence resulting from a high level of brain drain. Also, a ribbon for opiod addiction brought on by the 40 year old manufacturing blues and the lazy white ppl too good to work in labor market or come up with alternative ways to bring jobs back to wi. CA always forward, WI always backward? We’ll see in ’18.

  5. Eric J. says:

    Good story as usual from Todd . From someone capable of a level of critical thinking and able to write a comprehensible article. You won’t see anyone with an (R) after the name suggesting these measures.

    -We will miss you . Thanks for everything you have done a W.T.A. You leave us in precarious times.

  6. Little Boots says:

    @WashCoRepub, How can you honestly support the republican gerrymandering in Wisconsin? Please tell us. Is it just to “win” at all costs. Party before country? Party before constitution? Republican gerrymandering in Wisconsin has literally destroyed democracy itself the state and is just wrong, whether democrats or republicans do it. Let’s have a fair debate and fair elections instead.

    Furthermore, what an angry, hostile hateful attitude and comment. I don’t want anything but the best for you and your family, even if we disagree on some stuff. Walker and his policies have caused serious discord in the state, divided everyone and very seriously hurt a lot of good decent hard working people’s lives and livlihoods. Yet people like you are so tribalized, bitterly partisan, angry and openly hostile you can’t see it and instead dehumanize everyone and thus yourself. Dehumanization is scary. Given all this and the harm Walker and republicans have done it’s no wonder people will be forced to flee if Walker becomes “Governor for Life.” What’s next? Far right wing death squads unleashed on all progressives in the state? I sure hope not. It’s time for you to do some serious self reflection. Meditate on your hate and anger as well as why republicans and yourself continually need to afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable. That’s the opposite of what Jesus taught! Best of luck to you in 2018.

  7. Jeff K says:

    Many thanks to you Mr Berry for honest and objective analysis over the last quarter century.. I particularly liked your valedictory in which you call for a return of a part time legislature with shorter fixed length sessions. When public service trumps politics Wisconsin will resume its leadership position of good government with a great university.. Let’s all work together to make that happen!

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