Saturday, July 04, 2015

"As Walker Announces Run for the White House, WI GOP Guts Open Records Law" @ Center for Media and Democracy


July 3, 2015

"Cowardly" Move Directly Related to CMD's Lawsuit Over "Drafting Error" Documents

On the same day that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced his run for president, the Wisconsin GOP has proposed a virtual gutting of Wisconsin's open records law, long considered one of the best in the nation. The drastic changes were proposed in a last-minute, anonymous budget motion, with zero public input on the eve of a holiday weekend. The motion will be rolled into the state's massive budget bill and voted on in the coming weeks.

The unprecedented proposal would give lawmakers broad authority to hide the special interests who are working to influence legislation. It would keep legislative drafting files under wraps, create a new "deliberative materials" exemption in the open records law that would exempt records at all levels of government, and give the legislature an easy way to hide even more records from disclosure in the future.

The move to gut the open records law appears to come in direct response to a lawsuit that the Center for Media and Democracy filed against Governor Walker in May.

CMD was the first to reveal that Walker's office had struck the "search for truth" from the university's mission and eliminated the "Wisconsin Idea," and sued Walker after he withheld records pertaining to the changes, based on a claimed "deliberative process privilege. Although Walker's lawyers claim there already exists a deliberative privilege in Wisconsin law, that clearly is not true, because if it were, his allies in the legislature wouldn't have to add one through the budget process.

The sweeping proposal would gut the public records law as it applies to the legislature and governor's office, hiding special interest influence over public policy. The measure would help candidate Walker sidestep public scrutiny as more and more national media outlets file records requests with his office. The Joint Finance Committee chairs, Sen. Alberta Darling (R) and Rep. John Nygren (R), have refused to say who asked for the changes.

Bill Lueders, president of the transparency watchdog Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called the proposal a "cowardly" and a "shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government."

"These radical and sweeping changes represent a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin’s history of open government," Lueders said. "They are clearly intended to block the public from discovering what factors drive the official actions of government, especially the Legislature, and will inevitably lead to abuse, malfeasance and corruption."

Ron Sklansky, a former senior staff attorney at the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Counsel for 35 years and one of the attorney experts on open records, told CMD he had never seen a legislative proposal put forward that was as "devastating" to the open records law as this one. The measure is "almost a complete gutting of open records as it applies to the legislative and executive branch. It prevents the public from investigating the undue influence of special interests on the passage of legislation and the development of executive branch proposals and rule making," he said.

Although the proposal passed the Joint Finance Committee along party lines--with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats against--the move has prompted outrage across the political spectrum. The president of the right-wing MacIver Insitute, Brett Healy, said the proposal "looks to be a huge step backwards for open government." Wisconsin's Republican Attorney General, Brad Schimel, said "Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the Budget Bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction."

The proposal would:

1) Create a new "deliberative materials" exemption

The amendments would exempt all "deliberative materials" from disclosure under the public records law, protecting anything that might have informed a policy decision.

"Deliberative materials" are broadly defined as “communications and other materials, including opinions, analyses, briefings, background information, recommendations, suggestions, drafts, correspondence about drafts, and notes, created or prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action.”

This measure could protect the disclosure of communications, draft legislation, or background materials from groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or "ALEC." It would allow legislators to hide their communications with lobbyists or campaign donors seeking policy favors. And it would allow the governor to hide how the executive budget was developed--including, for example, how, and why, his office might have sought to alter the purpose of the university system.

2) Allow legislators to hide the identity of any person who communicates about the development of policy

This could allow lawmakers to hide the special interests who are working to influence legislation.

For example, CMD has filed an open records request with Joint Finance Chair Alberta Darling, who received thousands of dollars of contributions from Bill Minahan, whose company Building Committee Inc. received a $500,000 unsecured loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), then promptly went bust leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.

The Wisconsin State Journal used the open records law to take a deep dive into this loan, documenting that it came shortly after Minahan gave Walker a $10,000 contribution and linking it to Walker’s chief of staff Keith Gilkes and second-in-command Mike Huebsch. Most recently, the State Journal discovered that Minahan loan had not gone through the underwriting required by law and many more loans failed to go through proper underwriting, putting millions of taxpayer dollars at risk.

WEDC has been the subject of two damning state audits which documented continued lawbreaking at Walker’s flagship jobs agency. Shortly after the last audit was published, two legislators threatened to get rid of the highly respected non-partisan audit bureau. CMD sent records requests to Reps. Adam Jarchow and David Craig, curious as to who was behind the radical move to destroy the audit bureau, but has not yet received their response.

3) Hide the "drafting files" showing how legislation is developed

"Drafting files" reveal the process of developing a bill or budget provision, and are used regularly by journalists to gain insight into how policy is developed. And those insights can sometimes be embarassing.

Drafting files were key to undermining Walker's claims about his offices changes to the Wisconsin Idea. After the deletion of the "search for truth" sparked a "political firestorm" in Wisconsin and around the country, the governor blamed the change on a “drafting error,” and then on a “miscommunication,” then claimed that the university never raised concerns about the changes. Yet those statements were contradicted by the drafting files examined by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and documents obtained through records requests, earning Walker a “pants on fire” rating from Politifact.

Drafting files also informed other important investigations. In 2014, for example, a Wisconsin State Journal examination of drafting files showed a wealthy, divorced donor to Rep. Joel Kleefisch helping to write a bill that would have lowered his child support payments. If these amendments were enacted, those records--and the donor's influence--would have been kept secret.

Additionally, drafting records aren't just important for accountability, "they are needed by the courts to discern the legislative intent behind the construction of statutes," said Sklansky who noted that legislative intent was a consideration in the recent Supreme Courts ruling on the federal health care law last week.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, for example, a former Republican legislator, regularly consults drafting files and legislative records to ascertain legislative intent.

4) Allow the legislature to override the Public Records Law via legislative rule

The proposal also gives the legislature the ability to exempt any additional records from disclosure merely by adopting a new rule by majority vote--without having to go through the legislative process.

By eliminating access to records that had previously been public, this move limits the ability of the press and public to play their watchdog role. Taken together with proposals to dismantle the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (after it investigated alleged campaign finance violations by Walker's campaign) and the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau (after it critiqued Walker's jobs agency in a scathing audit), all evidence indicates that Governor Walker and his allies are seeking to muzzle the watchdogs.

Click here to see proposal.

Bernie Sanders: July 1, 2015 Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, WI.

June 30, 2015

Friday, July 03, 2015

Sarah Smarsh: "Poverty, Pride and Prejudice in Kansas" @ The New Yorker

Another Kansan writes from the outside, looking back with pain ...

Priti Gulati Cox: "When the Personal Fits the Political Agenda" @ Counterpunch


Written by a Kansas resident-artist from "the Bruised Apple" Salina down the road from Manhattan a/k/a "the Little Apple." This was some of the best reporting I came across of the big day in the Topeka statehouse. 

[Excerpt]   ... Rep. Barton testified that he was a supporter of House Bill 2139, and that he found “her remarks offensive and disrespectful,” and that she “resorted to the tactic of choosing her target….I was one of those targets.” And Rep. Highland for his part said, “The inflammatory tone and words used in the speech were taken personally by several members of the committee, to include me.” Neither explained why he assumed that when Rep. Winn mentioned racism and bigotry she was referring to him.
Later that afternoon, five of the six panel members voted to drop the case against Rep. Winn; the chair, Rep. Davis, abstained. The complaint was dismissed. But afterward, Rep. Winn told me, “This isn’t over yet.” ... [End of Excerpt]


Read the complete article with video link at Counterpunch.

Molly Beck: "Republicans vote to dramatically scale back oversight of lawmakers, other public officials" @ Wisconsin State Journal

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jim McLean: "Analysis Questions Fairness Of Kansas Tax System" @ KCUR-fm via the Heartland Health Monitor

"Sine Die" Statehouse Session June 26, 2015: Shaking off the morning dew, a dawn rising from the South


Kansas People's Action is rising up to the tyranny of the Kansas
Legislature in it's attempt to censure and expel Representative Valdenia Winn for standing up for the rights of immigrant children. 

We plan to leave Wichita at 5:30 AM on Friday, June 26, 2015 from our offices. 

We ask all to assemble at 1751 N. Ash, Wichita, Ks. The hearing will be held at 8:30 AM in room 582N and we will arrive in Topeka by 8:00 AM. 

If you're interested in joining us, please call 316-264-9972x49.

We have a bus and ask that you come prepared to provide a small donation. We'll update you with more details later this week.

Upon arrival, we will be delivering this petition: http://action.kansaspeoplesaction.org/page/s/we-support-valdenia-winn, to the members of the committee overseeing the hearing. 

If you haven't already signed it, Rep. Winn can use all the support she can get and your signature would be greatly appreciated. 

Please also share it with friends.

There are a number of other happenings from various groups at the statehouse on Friday that you may want to support and can be viewed by clicking this link:

https://www.facebook.com/events/960321000665602/

FROM THE FACEBOOK EVENT:

Agenda:

8:30 AM, Room 582 North - Hearing for Rep. Valdenia Winn, accused of using "racially charged" language during an Education committee meeting earlier in the 2015 session
Accusers: Republican representatives Barton, Rhoads, Macheers, Bradford, Dove, Lunn, Highland, Hedke, and Barker
versus

Defendant: Democratic Representative Valdenia Winn, she has been denied attorney representation per Hearing Committee Chair Republican Erin Davis (913-768-6408, 913-271-1095,   email at: erin@reperindavis.com)

############

10:00am House & Senate will gavel in for Sine Die, the formality that ends the Worst. Legislative. Session. Ever. 

The House & Senate have to clean up the property tax lid bill that they rushed through, so this may take a bit. 

They have to decide whether to wreck local governments now (July 2015) or later (2018). Fill the galleries (4th floor) & outside hallways (3rd & 4th floors), if necessary.

Equality Kansas has the 1st floor rotunda for an event at 10am. We are kindred spirits, sharing the same goals of equality for all. Democrats should feel free to attend this or sine die.

Following sine die, we can greet the legislators:

  1. outside their respective chambers; 
  2. on their way to the garage; 
  3. from the sidewalk near the garage exit as they leave the Capitol (northeast corner, near 8th & Jackson). 

Suggested signs for #3: "Enjoy the crappy roads you created on your ride home."

2:00pm: Possible 2nd session of the Winn hearing.

3:00pm: Human Chain Around the Capitol

Join us and our friends as we let Sam Brownback and the Republican-controlled legislature know that they've failed us for the last time. 

This session was the longest, most expensive ever. And who ends up paying the bill? You, me, everyone - except the 1%.

Taxing the poor and giving to the rich is no way to run a state government. 

**Details subject to change; check in June 25 for final schedule**

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Nicolas Wahl: "Chamber breakfast: Lobbyist Koch reports on legislative session" @ The Newton Kansan

Posted Jun. 21, 2015 at 12:01 AM

Newton, Kan.

Parking lots were full and few table settings remained as an eager crowd filed into the main ballroom at the Meridian Center for June’s Breakfast with the Chamber.

Interest for the event, put on by the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce, was high as guest speaker, registered lobbyist Bernie Koch, had recently returned from the highly publicized Kansas Legislative session. Koch represents the Harvey County Council of Governments and Kansas Counseling Association. He is executive director of the Kansas Economic Progress Council.

With more than 44 years experience in government relations, including 39 different Kansas Legislative sessions, Koch shed light on the events at the state house and theorized on what the results might mean for the future.

He began with a self-deprecating joke, dispelling any notion of his relation to well-known Wichita brothers Charles and David Koch.

“So you don’t have to suck up to me,” he said.

A brief presentation on the history of American lobbyists followed before getting into the meat of the discussion — the longest legislative session in Kansas history.

“If the House of Representatives had been a P.O.W camp the sessions would have been a violation of the Geneva Conventions,” he said.

After state income tax cuts signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012, the current legislature — and Brownback — were tasked with filling the more than $600 million budget deficit for FY 2016 when the session began, Koch told the crowd. The session closed June 12 after 113 legislative days.

Koch credited former seven-term Kansas Rep. and budget director Duane Goossen, now senior fellow at Kansas Center for Economic Growth, for his predictions on the 2012 cuts, as well as Goossen’s suggestions on their repeal.

The shortfalls affected schools. Even with the addition of block grants for education

“Some schools had to close early,” Koch said.

Some university presidents reported worrying they would have to double tuition.

Bethel College vice president of business affairs Allen Wedel said had non-profit sales tax exemptions not continued “tuitions at Bethel could have increased as much as 3 percent.”

Some of the lost money was shifted over from the highway fund, but Koch said it has slowed highway work, and likely would in the future.

The issuance of $1 billion in Kansas Public Employment Retirement System bonds freed up an estimated $64 million toward the deficit.


Income tax rates of 2.7 percent for single filers making up to $15,000 and 4.6 percent for those earning more than $15,000 will remain unchanged up to and after 2018. The threshold is $30,000 for joint filers, among whom those making less than $12,500 would pay no tax.

Koch mentioned the restoration of food sales tax rebates and income tax deductions changes. The latter change is seen by many as an attempt to redress the effects of the regressive sales tax hike from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent in July.

“Some of these elements are good …,” Koch said. “But overall this is a grab bag of ideas.”

The bag, Koch said, does little to address the budget problem, saying it was “filled with stop-gaps.”

He used KPERS and the highway fund as prime examples.

Koch also noted neither cities nor counties could increase budgets from property taxes exceeding the rate of inflation unless voted on at election until 2018. Examples of which include new infrastructure, special assessments and paying judges.

After a short question and answer session with Koch, Rep. Don Schroeder R-Hesston, also recently returned from Topeka, spoke briefly.

He said the possibility remained the state would run into more money problems in the near future. Schroeder echoed Koch’s statements on taxes, saying projections showed income tax trended above needs, while sales tax remained below.

“We’re moving away from the stability of income taxes to less stable sales taxes,” Schroeder said.

Barbara Shelly: "Only in Sam Brownback’s Land of Oz is a $400 million tax increase not a tax increase" @ Kansas City Star Ed/Op

Flyer Note: This editorial was also published in the Tulsa World newspaper, June 20, 2015.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback must take the people of his state for fools.

How else to explain his glib behavior at a news conference today, when he inked his signature on a bill that calls for the largest tax increase in the state’s history and said it wasn’t a tax increase at all?

“Some would have you believe this bill represents a tax increase and that is not accurate,” Brownback said. “When looked at in totality, from 2012 to 2015, as I said at the outset, Kansans are paying less in taxes and continuing to move off income taxes to consumption-based taxes.”

In other words, if you combine the reckless 2012 income tax cuts for the wealthy with the new tax hikes that the Legislature passed to save the state from fiscal insolvency, the state overall is taking in fewer tax dollars.

Fabulous! Kansas is still broke even though close to 50 percent of its residents are giving it more of their pocket money. Local governments are raising property taxes. College tuition and school fees are headed north. Public services are going south. But according to King Sam, everyone should be happy because he, the wise and powerful, is collecting less overall tax revenue than before.

Hello, Gov. Brownback, reality is calling:

▪ When you sign a bill raising almost $400 million in new revenues through a combination of higher taxes, that is a tax increase.
▪ When a low-income family pays more in sales taxes to buy groceries and necessities so that the state can keep the lights on, that is a tax increase.
▪ When you cut a tax deduction used by thousands of ordinary Kansans in half, that is a tax increase.
▪ If the top 1 percent of income earners ends up paying $25,000 less in taxes but the bottom 20 percent has to pay almost $200 more in taxes, you have most certainly raised taxes on the lower 20 percent.
▪ If you have to raise taxes and slash education and services to pay for your earlier tax cut plan, that plan is not working.

But Brownback has never been one to let reality intrude on his happy landscape. The sun is always shining in the Kingdom of Sam, even if everybody knows it isn’t.

Other gems from Brownback’s news conference:

▪ His assertion that “our policy is saving Kansans money and putting money in their pocket rather than the government’s pocket.” Unless you shop in Kansas, of course. Then you’ll pay more out of pocket.
▪ His preposterous contention that the extended legislative session wouldn’t have been such a train wreck if the Democrats had just come prepared. “The minority party put forward no proposals to solve this issue. None,” he said.

With less than one-fourth of the seats in the Legislature, Democrats usually are consigned to the role of principled opposition. But, actually, they did have a proposal, and so did the moderate Republicans who also occupy the figurative back row of the conservative-dominated Legislature.

Roll back the income tax cuts, they said, especially the exemptions that allow owners of certain types of businesses to pay zero income taxes, with nothing expected of them in return.

A brilliant idea. Resolve the problem by reversing the tax cuts that caused the problems in the first place. Too bad King Sam wanted none of it. He still thinks Kansans will buy his delusions.


To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. On Twitter @bshelly.

Read more at the Kansas City Star, click here.

Editorial: "Illiberal Kansas Leaders Practice Vengeful Politics" @ June 19, 2015 Des Moines Register


In 1896 William Allen White, a young newspaper editor in Emporia, Kan., published an editorial under the headline, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” that was picked up across the country. The editorial was a brilliantly written spleen-venting on how Kansas’ progress was being retarded by the Populist political movement.

The same question might be asked today: Just what is the matter with Kansas?

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Kansas Legislature have racked up a series of victories over common sense, including ill-considered tax cuts that have starved schools and left the state budget seriously out of balance. Recently, lawmakers passed legislation imposing punitive limits on welfare recipients that would ban using welfare money on everything from fortune tellers to ocean cruises.

Kansas lawmakers “too often have approved laws that are cruel, vengeful, retaliatory (and any other synonym you want to use for vindictive) toward minorities, courts and the poor,” the Kansas City Star said in an editorial earlier this week. (By the way, White learned to write editorials at the Star.)

The Kansas Legislature has even directed its fire at the state courts. A pending lawsuit asserts that a 2014 state law that stripped the Kansas Supreme Court of some administrative authority violates the Kansas Constitution. So, the legislature put language in a budget bill that funding for all state courts will be eliminated if the lawsuit is upheld. Gov. Sam Brownback signed the budget bill into law with the threat intact.

Shutting down courts because a judge’s ruling offends state legislators violates the very idea of separation of powers. That separation will be maintained only as long as the purpose of divided government is respected and defended by all three branches, not because one branch or another has an army to enforce its will.

Some state legislators in Topeka have forgotten that.