submitted by Bill Haight; photo by Donna Beestman
Todd Berry, retired head of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, reflected on the changes he’s seen in Wisconsin government over the past 40 years.
The observable changes Berry noted are toward more short-term thinking, ideological polarization, gridlock and incivility.
The “old” was characterized by “citizen legislators,” who most likely had spent some time in business, other professions or parenting. The “new” legislator has likely selected a career path toward politics: a political science degree, internship and party activity.
Wisconsin is one of about a dozen states, and perhaps the smallest, with a full-time, professional legislature. These career politicians have a tendency to have their eye on their next election, rather than long-term strategy, bipartisan cooperation or the average voter. They are more beholden to party leaders who control committee appointments, influence allocation of special-interest campaign donations and otherwise affect the political fate of legislators.
Redistricting and Wisconsin’s primary election structure also tend to make a politician focus on special-interest voters at the expense of the average voter who likely doesn’t vote in the primary anyway. Making partisan primaries into all-candidate, cross-party primaries would be a step toward giving voters a broader, less predictable choice, said Berry. In a recent year, fully half the legislators elected faced little or no real opposition.
In order to attract more non-career legislators, Berry threw out the “crazy” idea of tripling the size of the legislature. This would mean smaller districts, and less susceptibility to special influence funding. Technology could enable part-time legislators to communicate and vote without having to spend lengthy time in Madison, away from their constituents.
An audience member asked: Might the incoming generation of millennials resist the trend toward excessive party-boss influence? Unfortunately, noted Berry, while the average age of legislators dipped in the 70s and 80s, it has been increasing in recent years.
If you missed your meeting this week, you can watch the video here.