By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Let’s be honest. Politics is the raw kale of our lives.
WebMD hails kale as an “exceptional … superstar vegetable,” packed with fiber, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K.
Similarly, lots of people make the case for paying attention to politics: “Countless numbers of people have died so that you have the right to vote!”, “Politics affects everything in our lives – our health, our education, our roads, our environment!,” “It’s our taxes they’re spending!”
So, one day, we try it: We bake a few kale chips, optimistically believing that they really, really will taste just like Pringles. Or we turn on C-SPAN or Wisconsin Eye, determined and optimistic about our brighter, more politically savvy future.
Fifteen minutes later, however, be it kale or politics, we’re left with the same thought: “Yep, that’s every bit as disgusting as I thought it would be.”
So, it’s back to our lives of Funyuns and “Real Housewives.”
Unfortunately, as we lie sleeping, the people we elect are ruining democracy.
So, in celebration of Sunshine Week, which honors open government, here’s some information on how they’re doing just that:
Pop quiz: Which political party, Republicans or Democrats, garnered the most votes last November in the Wisconsin state Senate, state Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives?
Which party controls all three chambers? Republicans.
And that’s largely (though not entirely) due to redistricting.
Every 10 years, after the U.S. Census, states redraw legislative and congressional district lines to account for population shifts.
The GOP won big in the 2010 elections, giving them significant control over the redistricting process and allowing them to redraw the lines to protect their own incumbents and pack Democrats into as few districts as they could get away with legally.
Don’t feel too bad for Democrats — given the chance, they would do the same to boost their own party’s advantage.
What difference does it make, you ask?
Look at the partisan gridlock in Congress.
And that mining bill Gov. Scott Walker signed into law on Monday might look vaguely familiar — say, from a year ago, when a very similar bit of legislation failed to make it through the state Senate.
This year, with a padded GOP Senate majority, the bill’s success virtually was guaranteed.
That’s good news or bad news, depending on your political persuasion.
Either way, if we’re to have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” shouldn’t the government, at minimum, reflect the people’s vote?
Closed caucus meetings
Want to know what your elected representatives really think?
You’ll have to join the Legislature.
Technically, what happens on the state Assembly and Senate floors is called “debate.”
In reality, by the time a bill gets to “floor debate,” its fate is already sealed — everyone in the chamber knows the opinions of everyone else, whether a bill will pass, who will speak about it, what each person will say, etc.
That’s because all the real debate has happened in closed “caucus” meetings, where all the Republicans gather in one room and all the Democrats gather in another room and they battle it out until the members of each party have a single stance on the issue, at least publicly.
No media or public allowed, even if there’s a majority of lawmakers present, because legislators exempted caucus meetings from open meetings laws long ago.
Hear it from a lawmaker himself.
Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, said this in January, as the Assembly was adopting new rules governing its operations: “(The new rules say), ‘Look, we know what the outcome’s going to be anyway. We go to our closed-door meetings where the public can’t hear us, where the press can’t get in. We do the arm twisting and then we come to the floor, and that’s it. So we really need to streamline how long this is going to take,’” Mason said. “That’s not deliberation. That’s not democracy.”
Open records laws
This is an issue that gets ignored because it seems like a media thing — as in, members of the press whining that they can’t easily get the information they want.
And generally the public doesn’t feel too sympathetic toward members of the press.
But, do you want to know who has the ear of your local lawmaker? Curious about who your elected officials are emailing, what promises are being sworn, which commitments are being made?
The Legislature decades ago decided it doesn’t have to follow the open records laws others — including the governor — have to obey. Lawmakers, for example, don’t have to keep email correspondence, unless someone requests the information before it is deleted.
Has your local police department wronged you, and you’re looking for proof? Seeking evidence that the city council is corrupt?
It may cost you. Lots.
Last year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won a state Supreme Court case against the City of Milwaukee, which tried to charge the newspaper more than $10,000 to redact private information from police records — records that indicated the city was misreporting aggravated assaults as lesser offenses.
This year, lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would allow governmental entities, such as Milwaukee, to charge for the time it takes to redact information from public records.
If that passes, the cost of getting public information could skyrocket, and there’s little accountability for how much is charged.
So if you want to know what your government is up to, be prepared to pony up some serious funds.
There are a few facts in life.
Kale chips are gross and taste nothing at all like Lay’s.
C-SPAN is boring.
Lawmakers do some pretty wretched things when they think nobody’s paying attention. They’re not (usually) evil, but they are human.
It could be that, in a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we’re just getting what we deserve.
But I think we can do better.
So, tonight, neither politics nor kale might be what you’d like for dinner.
But, maybe, in honor of Sunshine Week, you could try putting some on your plate anyway.
Contact Kirsten Adshead at [email protected].