Editorial: Wisconsin Republicans are robbing taxpayers to fund partisan schemes

Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate Republicans are in trouble. They drew legislative district maps that favored themselves so overwhelmingly that the federal courts objected. While initial concerns were raised over Republican discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, a broader examination revealed that those maps discriminate against voters of all backgrounds and in regions across the state.

The Republican maps are an anti-democratic travesty. In fact, they are such a voter-unfriendly and competition-averse mess that a panel of three federal judges determined in November that the Republican lines were unconstitutional.

“We find that the discriminatory effect is not explained by the political geography of Wisconsin nor is it justified by a legitimate state interest,” the judges explained in their decision. “Consequently, Act 43 (the Republican gerrymandering scheme) constitutes an unconstitutional political gerrymander.”

Gov. Scott Walker, Attorney General Brad Schimel and legislative leaders were terrified by the ruling, and rightly so. They know that Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate have not been secured by following sound policies or running credible candidates. Those majorities have been secured by gaming the system through gerrymandering. So Walker and his allies appealed and objected and stalled in hopes of delaying democracy.

But the federal jurists were not having it. They ordered legislators to redraw the lines in order to create Assembly and Senate districts where contests between Democrats and Republicans might be more generally competitive — and where the results of the November 2018 election might represent the will of the voters rather than the gerrymandering of the process by partisan hacks.

So now Republican leaders in the Assembly and Senate are desperate. And in their desperation they are robbing the taxpayers of Wisconsin to fund schemes to preserve the political power and paychecks they might lose in fair elections. The unconstitutional maps that have caused so much controversy were drawn six years ago in a secretive process that saw legislative Republicans work with friendly lawyers to gerrymander the state. Now legislative Republicans are responding to the court order with more secrecy and more abuse of taxpayer funds.

The office of state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, the Middleton Democrat who serves as the assistant Assembly Democratic leader, noted before Republican legislators voted for the costly — and entirely unnecessary — arrangement: “With Wisconsin taxpayers having already been taken for a $2 million ride by Republicans in their crusade to defend unconstitutional legislative maps drawn in 2011, the self-proclaimed ‘fiscal hawks’ of the state Legislature are set to (approve) the creation of a slush fund to pay additional legal fees as they continue to fight the federal judicial branch that has found them in violation of the United States Constitution.”

“This slush fund that is (being) created by Republicans in the Legislature is a complete waste of taxpayer money,” added Hesselbein. “Looking back at previous legal fees charged to the hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin, there is little doubt in my mind that this new slush fund will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about what we could do with that money — it could be used as part of a middle class tax cut, we could pay for more students to have access to laptops in our public schools, or we could use it to support state programs that assist our veterans. Instead, Republicans will use your money to pay deep-pocketed lawyers to defend their unconstitutional legislative maps. Wisconsin taxpayers work too hard to see their tax dollars spent in this manner.”

Hesselbein’s point is well taken.

So, too, is the point made by Jay Heck, the head of Common Cause in Wisconsin, who said last week: “The revelation (Wednesday) that Wisconsin Republican legislative leaders intend to hire — at taxpayer expense — two law firms through a secret vote, and without naming the firms, is richly ironic and insulting to every Wisconsin voter. Their 2011 state legislative voter maps were deemed unconstitutional last November by a panel of federal judges, in part, because of the lack of transparency and extreme secrecy utilized by these same leaders during the 2011 redistricting process.” (Later reports indicated that the firms are Chicago-based Kirkland and Ellis and Madison-based Bell Giftos St. John.)

Decrying the choices being made by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, Heck explained: “All Wisconsin taxpayers, who will be forced to bear the cost for the defense of the unconstitutional maps by outside law firms, and all Wisconsin voters, who were robbed of input into the process and of real choices in general elections, should demand an end to this top-down arrogance and insist on complete transparency in all matters relating to complying with the federal court order to redraw voter maps this year and thereafter.”

What legislative Republicans are doing is wrong. Whether the outside lawyers are being hired to fight the court decision or to draw new maps — or both — there is no need for taxpayers to shell out exorbitant sums for outside lawyers to do Republicans’ bidding.

The Republicans are abusing their positions, and the state’s resources, for partisan purposes. They are diverting taxpayer funds to advance their personal power and to deny democracy.

Fitzgerald and Vos have already shamed themselves and their offices.

They have been called out by the courts. Yet, instead of trying to get things right, they are engaging in more shameful activity. And they are demanding that taxpayers fund their wrongdoing.

They are forfeiting the public trust. The Republicans are abusing their positions, and the state’s resources, for partisan purposes. They are diverting taxpayer funds to advance their personal power and to deny democracy.

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2017 in The Capital Times