Sunday, November 25, 2007

Money and Wisconsin Politics

Is there too much money in Wisconsin politics?

Many Wisconsin “good government” groups, like Common Cause, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the League of Women Voters, all advocate reforms in how election campaigns are financed.

It galls them that Wisconsin’s two-year state budget was 101 days late. They do not care that it was Wisconsin Assembly Republicans and Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch who went to the mat to avoid massive state tax increases on Wisconsin families. Never mind that Wisconsin government does not shut down when the budget is late, unlike most states. They see special interest groups behind everything the Legislature does.

They say that the full-time Wisconsin legislature does nothing and that a ban on campaign contributions from PACS, limiting campaign spending or public financing is the key to success. Some Wisconsin legislators, especially the minority and majority leaders of each chamber, are really full-time. Some have other jobs to provide for their families on the days in each week when they are not in Madison. Wisconsin legislators are paid about $47,500 per year plus a per diem of up to $77 per day on legislative business.

That sounds like a lot, but Wisconsin’s legislative salary is actually the lowest of nine full-time state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Let’s look at the legislative pay of our neighbors. Illinois pays legislators approximately $57,600 and they get a per diem of $125 on session days; Michigan pays about $79,600 per year plus a sum of $12,000 from which they draw a per diem.

There are three effects from banning PAC money, limiting campaign spending or public financing of elections. First, incumbency would be enhanced, because incumbents have an advantage in lists, official mailings to raise name identification and district connections. Potential challengers could not raise money to offset these advantages. Second, as legislators retire, they will be replaced by union activists, retired persons with pensions and millionaires who can all afford to run. The Wisconsin legislature would become more liberal and tax-friendly, run by people who would not serve long enough to develop expertise in public policy so lobbyists will become more influential, not less.

Finally, money is a type of free speech. That was the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo. When money is outlawed, only outlaws will have money. In-kind donations or secret contributions will soar. Disclosure of campaign contributions from any source and amount is healthy for a democracy.

When government reformers propose strong medicine to drive money out of political campaigns, watch your wallet.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Alabama Football Saint or Sinner?

High school and college football is a religion in Alabama. There are only two seasons: football season and talking about the next football season. So successful at winning football games, Hoover High School head coach Rush Propst has been a saint to many.

Hoover is a growing affluent suburb of Birmingham and Hoover High School is the older of two public high schools there. Hoover won four straight state championships from 2002 to 2005. In national rankings of elite high school football teams, the Hoover Buccaneers have been ranked as high as fourth. A number of former Hoover stars play on college teams now and a few have made it to the National Football League.

Due in part to this success, MTV aired two seasons of “Two-a-Days,” a documentary series focusing on Propst, Hoover players and their friends both on and off the football field. Think “Friday Night Lights” with real people, not actors. Requests for Hoover Buccaneer paraphernalia poured in from all over the country. Hoover’s game with elite John Curtis High School of metropolitan New Orleans was televised nationally on ESPN’s high school sports network.

Now Propst has apparently fallen from sainthood. In addition to forfeiting four games this year for using an ineligible transfer player, Propst abruptly resigned the coaching job he took in 1999. However, he said that he should remain Hoover’s head coach throughout the 2007 high school playoffs and then be an administrator paid his approximately $101,000 annual salary until the end of August 2008. Although the average teacher in Alabama makes about $40,000 per year, the Hoover School Board has often caved in to Propst and granted this request. They also agreed to give Propst a $141,000 annuity when he leaves.

What did Propst do to land in such hot water? Allegations include grade-changing for academically-challenged football players and spying on their rival Vestavia Hills Rebels at practice. Propst boosters tend to blame the charges on fans of the other Hoover high school, the younger Spain Park, which is not nearly as talented in football, and view the minority of school board members that does not want Propst to coach any more Buccaneer games as Spain Park Jaguar partisans.

Spain Park, however, has had nothing to do with Propst’s major public problem; he has fathered three children out of wedlock in another town. He denies being romantically involved with a current Hoover assistant principal. So far there has been no comment from Tammy Propst or the couple’s children in Hoover.

In tearful testimony to the Hoover school board, Propst admitted that he had made mistakes. However, he blamed the charge of grade-changing on a principal who got the boot this summer and a zealous assistant coach. He blamed another assistant coach for spying on the rival. Propst portrayed himself as the victim of turmoil, noting there have three Hoover school superintendents, six Hoover high school principals and three Hoover mayors in eight years as if he and his boosters had nothing to do with any of this.

When “Two-A-Days” aired, Propst apologized repeatedly for using salty language on the program. Apparently, swearing on MTV was the least of his transgressions.