Saturday, December 20, 2014

Yes, we should make people uncomfortable with what's going on

I see some people who are sympathetic to the "Black Lives Matter" movement against police brutality are still upset by any outward disruption that puts these protests in front of them. A good example is the whining from many white people about the dozens of people arrested after blocking I-43 northbound in Milwaukee last night to complain about the lack of charges against officers who killed the unarmed Dontre Hamilton in April. Another example include the numerous die-ins and other protests that took place at shopping malls on the last Saturday before Christmas, including a huge one that shut down the Mall of America in Minnesota for a spell. This no doubt annoyed shoppers who were trying to complete their lists, and maybe angered a few that didn't want to deal with the issue.

But there's a part of me that kinda likes that these people are made uncomfortable. People need to see and feel the reality in front of them, because the inability to empathize to others is one of this country's biggest failures today, and if these people end up having to think about the issue and go through a bit of annoyance in the process, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Once you're directly affected and forced to have some kind of skin in the game, no matter how fleeting, it can keep those issues aware in your mind, and makes discussion and action more likely.

And to those with hurt fee-fees from having to deal with these issues, and are unhappy about their day-to-day being disrupted? I note this passage from Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", in April 1963.
...I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. ...

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
I fear that if the bad cops are not brought to justice, and that the overwhelming advantages to those connected to power continue, then some people will feel they have no choice but to be destructive as opposed to work toward the hope of improving the situation through legal means. This happened in New York City today, where a homicidal maniac used the lack of prosecution in the death of unarmed Eric Garner as a reason to go over the edge, and he executed two innocent police officers in their squad cars today.

The lack of trust in our legal system and our law enforcement officers is a problem for ALL OF US, and it endangers the many good cops that work within their community and do the right thing in their very tough circumstances. Protecting the bad guys (be they in law enforcement, on Wall Street, or in our politics) is leading to a situation that is intolerable for many of us, and not reversing this trend will lead to some people to decide to do bad things that go well beyond a peaceful protest. I hope that we can de-escalate this tinderbox of anger and mistrust from igniting into something worse, but I fear too many in power and too many in our media benefit from that division for them to do the right thing, and too many white moderates that are willing to condone any response from those in power (no matter how destructive or regressive) because they don't want to face the serious issues that we must confront and try to solve.

No, the Wisconsin deficit isn't shrinking

We got another look at the State of Wisconsin's fiscal picture in the last couple of days, but I think many are confused over the different numbers being thrown around.

When you look at the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s cost-to-continue estimates, which were released on Thursday, they are based on no new laws or programs being changed, which means this is the basic “keep the lights on” estimate.
Revenues. The attached condition statement incorporates the administration's estimates included in its November 20, 2014, report. This includes both the tax collection and departmental revenue estimates contained in the November 20 report. This [LFB] office will prepare its tax collection estimates for 2014-15 and 2015-17 in January, 2015.

Net Appropriations. Net appropriation amounts incorporate: the 2014-15 adjusted base; 2015-17 standard budget adjustments; commitments enacted in the current legislative session; and amounts to reflect caseload and population changes. Included in the net appropriation figures are compensation reserve and lapse amounts contained in the November 20 report.

Gross Balances. Based upon the assumptions shown above, the condition statement reflects that the gross ending balance for the 2015-17 biennium would be -$824 million.
The breakdown of the figures shows the following:

Cost-to-continue Revenues vs expenses
FY 2015-16 -$619 million
FY 2016-17 -$205 million
TOTAL DEFICITS $824 million

At first glance, this seems to be, if anything, an improvement, as last month the Walker Administration estimated there would be a total deficit of $2.2 billion for the next budget. But there are a whole lot of added details in that DOA document that make the larger figure the one more likely to have to be closed.

For example, I’ll point to two items in the Department of Transportation’s budget request that give examples as to why the real deficit is much bigger. These proposals were not included in the cost-to-continue paper, but will cause cuts in the DOT’s funding if they’re not carried out.

In that budget request, along with the $751 million in proposed added taxes and fees that would go straight into the Transportation Fund, there are two sizable new uses of General Fund money that would go into that fund. First, $225.6 million in General Fund money was projected to be provided as state aids to local communities to help them operate their transit systems, as opposed to the Transportation Fund money that pays for these aids today. So you either add this amount to the cost-to-continue deficit, or you have $225 millon + that is in a new deficit for the Transportation Fund. The same goes for a proposed $225.2 million in extra transfers from the General Fund for the next budget. This higher transfer is not accounted for in the cost-to-continue deficit, so either add that number to the Gen Fund deficit, or find $225 million more to cut at the DOT.

So if we assume that those proposals are adopted, and that this $450.8 million will be used to fund DOT items, we now have $1.27 billion to make up for. Now add in the fact that the LFB’s cost-to-continue estimates include the Department of Revenue’s projections for taxes for the next budget. As I’ve mentioned in the past, these assumptions seem quite rosy, as current-year revenues look to be on pace to fall short of the DOR’s figures for Fiscal Year 2015. (Interestingly, the November revenues numbers were supposed to be out from the DOR yesterday, and they are nowhere to be found. I'm guessing they wouldn't be doing that if the news was good).

The LFB’s cost-to-continue paper assumed that this fiscal year’s $132 million deficit would be made up through extra lapses and other means, but if revenues fall short, it’ll take a whole lot more money to balance the budget over the next 6 months. A revenue shortfall for FY 2014-15 would be a chain-reaction that would drive the deficit for the next budget higher, because the state would start off from a lower base, and need to make up even more revenues to close the gap not only for that year, but in the following budget. For example, let’s assume Wisconsin only grows revenues by 2.5% for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and then the 2015-17 budget has the same percentage increases in revenue growth as projected by the DOR. Here’s what you get.

If 2.5% revenue increase for 2014-15
2014-15 revenue shortfall $346.5 million
2015-16 revenue shortfall $355.8 million
2016-17 revenue shortfall $370.0 million

2014-15 deficit $478.6 million
2015-16 deficit $974.8 million
2016-17 deficit- additional $575 million

Now add back the $450 million in funding that would have to be found for the Transportation Fund uses of General Fund money that I mentioned earlier, and the deficit will be back near $2.5 billion.

Remember, this is merely to keep things running as is- without adding in the effects of inflation on costs, or any additional state services beyond what we have, or more aids to local government, or using those aids to reduce roperty taxes. This means you shouldn’t count on a repeat of the $406 million in “property tax relief” that Gov Walker keeps touting, because that gimmick has not been paid for, and makes up $812 million of the deficit in the coming budget.

So don’t be fooled by any spin about the budget picture “improving” in Wisconsin after the release of the Cost-to-Continue document. There are already a laundry list of unmet needs that exist due to the first four years of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, and a whole lot of bills that need to be paid but aren’t accounted for. Combine that with the likelihood that state revenues will come in below the already-slumping estimates, and you have a formula for a budget crisis that goes far beyond when Scott Walker claimed the state was “broke” in 2011. Forget tax cuts, we’ll be lucky to keep the lights on.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One great jobs report, and one bad track record

I found it interesting to see that the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development put out their monthly jobs release in the morning, as opposed to their typical release time in the early afternoon. As you’d expect from the tactic, those early-release numbers were great, with 16,500 seasonally-adjusted private sector jobs added in November, and October was revised up by another 6,900 jobs. These are blowout numbers that go well beyond the expected increases of around 6,000 that the state should have in a November that added 321,000 jobs nationwide.

We’ve had false starts like this before (we gained more than 10,000 private sector jobs in October 2013 and over 20,000 for the last 3 months of that year, and then quickly fell back to mediocrity) but the gains are still impressive. 35,500 new jobs over the last three months makes up for the bad jobs numbers that we suffered through in the first 2/3rds of 2014, and now bumps up job growth to 45,000 for 2014. If those numbers hold, it would be the best job growth the state has seen in the four years Scott Walker has been in office, and the Walker jobs gap is back below 56,000 jobs- which is still 10,000 more than it was at the start of this year, but certainly the last three months have narrowed the gap.

However, I also figured there was a reason the monthly jobs numbers were dropped early in the day by Walker’s Department of Workforce Development. It was because the “gold standard’ Quarterly Census on Wages and Employment came out at 9am, and it wasn’t so hot. This more complete survey covers the June 2013-June 2014 time period, and it shows Wisconsin to be 32nd in the nation for private sector job growth, at 1.47% (just over 35,000 jobs). Even worse, after being 5th in the Midwest for private sector job growth in the March QCEW, Wisconsin has now dropped back into last place among our neighbors for job growth in this survey.

QCEW private sector job growth, Jun 2013- Jun 2014
Mich +2.66%
Ind. +1.87%
Iowa +1.78%
Ill. +1.65%
Minn +1.63%
Ohio +1.56%
Wis. +1.47%

On the positive side, this 1.47% job growth is above the 1.18% job growth that we had this time last year, and it's been a slow but steady increase in the rate of growth over the last year. But job growth should be picking up when 2014 is a year when the country is adding the most jobs in the last 15 years (aka "THANKS OBAMA!"), and Wisconsin's current rate of growth is still below the 1.9% year-over-year growth that the state was at when Act 10 passed the Wisconsin Legislature in March 2011. In addition, we’re nearly 5,000 jobs below the 39,891 jobs that we had added in the year ending June 2011, which was the last month before Scott Walker’s and WisGOP’s first austerity budget went into law.

The QCEW report also show Wisconsin to be in the bottom half of U.S. when it comes to private sector wage growth (26th) and in the average weekly private sector wage (34th). That might explain why Gov Walker was warning Senate Republicans yesterday about low revenues that may hamper the state’s budgets over the next 2½ years, even with the jobs numbers in October and November being as strong as they were. By the way, only 2 states in the Midwest had a lower average weekly wage in the private sector than Wisconsin – Indiana (37th) and Iowa (41st), - and yes, both are (right to)work for less states.

And before you start talking up how great things seem in Michigan after they passed (right to) work for less in late 2012, keep in mind that the 93,600 gain they had in private sector jobs is the lowest number of jobs gained in Michigan from June-June in four years. Michigan is still more than 85,000 jobs below where they were in 2006 (!), and is so lacking in tax revenues and services that the state is now planning to ask voters to raise the sales tax by 1% next year and increase the gas tax just to make up for shortfalls in road funding.

So to review from today’s releases.

·Wisconsin had great jobs numbers for October and November, and is finally keeping up with much of the rest of the nation when it comes to the Obama Jobs Recovery for 2014.

·The QCEW shows Wisconsin is still in a massive, underperforming hole when June 2013-June 2014 is considered, and was in last place for private sector job growth from the start of Scott Walker’s tenure through the end of June 2014.

·(Right-to) work for less states in the Midwest may be adding jobs, but their wages are badly lagging, and Michigan’s job growth actually slowed down in the first full year that it turned to (right-to) work for less. Given Wisconsin’s already low wages, this policy doesn’t seem like a solution for our problems in adding jobs.

Now we get to see how our major jobs increase from November measures up to the rest of the nation, and if we’re even further in the budget hole due to bad revenues. Both of those sets of information should be out tomorrow.

PS- Chris Walker at Political Heat notes that the QCEW cements Wisconsin in last place for job growth over the 3 years that Scott Walker's budgets have been in effect. It goes into these numbers in more detail if you wish to check it out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Large batches of Wisconsin jobs, budget data comnig out

Tomorrow kicks off two days of huge amounts of Wisconsin economic data. First of all, we should see the release of the "gold standard" Quarterly Census on Employment Wages for the June 2013-June 2014 time period, and the Walker Administration has indicated that it'll show the state added just over 35,000 private sector jobs in this time period. If that number holds up, it would be an increase of 1.47%, which is above the 1.2% and 1.3% figures we've generally seen for the year prior, but it's still well below the 1.9% we had in March 2011 (when Act 10 was passed by the State Legislature) and 1.7% in June 2011 (when Scott Walker's first budget took effect.

We also get to see how Wisconsin matches up with the rest of the nation and its Midwestern brethren. We've consistently been between 30th and 40th since the policies of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan started taking effect, and given that US jobs numbers began to pick up with consistency in the Spring of 2014 (and will be included in this report), I see no reason to think that trend won't continue. The other question is to see if Wisconsin is out of the cellar for the first 3 1/2 years of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, or not.

Later in the afternoon, we should see the release of the state's jobs numbers for November. With the US having that blowout increase of 321,000 jobs for November, this means that anything less than 6,800 jobs in Wisconsin means that the state falls further behind, jacking up the Walker jobs gap past the 72,500 that it was already at in October.

Then on Friday, two more reports are scheduled to drop. The first is the state-by-state jobs and unemployment figures, where we get to compare Wisconsin's situation with the rest of the country, and it might inspire me to take another look at how the Midwest's "(right to) work for less" states do against the ones that don't have those provisions. In addition, the third Friday of the month is usually when the monthly revenue figures for the State of Wisconsin come out. With the state staring at budget deficits due to revenue shortfalls for both this fiscal year, and the next budget, this report takes on some extra interest. And WKOW's Greg Neumann dropped this little bit of news today from Gov Walker's Capitol photo op with Senate Republicans, which gives a bit of a clue as to what to expect from the report from the Department of Revenue.

So keep your eyes and ears open for the next 48 hours, as there will likely be plenty of lame attempts to distract from the reality on the ground, especially if the jobs and revenue numbers disappoint. Bad reports would sure explain all of Walker's tweets today about lower property tax bills, which are the result of giving $406 million in extra funding to technical colleges solely to cut the levies associated with those institutions. What Walker isn't telling people is that this move (listed as item 13 on this list from the LFB) was made without offsetting the extra funding in taxes (driving up the deficit as a result). Bad budget info would expose this as the cynical gimmick that it likely is.

School vouchers- driving up city taxes, driving down results

It’s time for Wisconsinites to receive and pay their property tax bills, and with that comes a lot of spinning and about the trends in the bills and how it affects the “hard-pressed, middle-class Wisconsin taxpayer.” For example, our Guv is plastering the Twittersphere with examples of the one-time drop in property taxes that go toward tech schools as a result of legislation from last winter (I note that Gov Walker doesn’t mention the $400 million-a-year budget hole that this move has caused).

Another person that’s taking note of his property tax bill is Milwaukeean Dom Noth, who’s back with another excellent, in-depth article describing how a different Scott Walker/WisGOP educational funding policy - greatly expanding funding for voucher schools at the expense of public schools – is a big reason behind higher property taxes for 2014 in the state’s largest city. Noth describes how politicians at the Capitol hide the true tax-jacking that goes on due to voucher schools, as those costs are folded into the costs listed under Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
Looking at the language and largest graphs within the bill, the home owner thinks the levy cost for MPS has grown 1%. It actually dropped 0.6% in one year. What actually has grown by 8.5% is the levy for a hidden school district, the second largest school district in the state, the voucher program. And since Madison makes sure those costs can be fobbed off on MPS, which never sees a dime, it is MPS that looks poorly run and overly expensive, not the voucher school program, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

MPCP is actually the sixth unit of local government on a tax bill that only reports five units. About 20% of what is blamed on the MPS it never sees, thanks to bureaucratic accounting finesse in Madison.

If this was about truth it would be the city of Milwaukee that would lead the cost figures in the levy parade and MPS would drop to second place. The voucher school district known as Milwaukee Parental Choice Program would be tucked into any pie graph just behind Milwaukee County and ahead of the MMSD and MATC. Nor has the state added a single dime in a year to the High Poverty Offset Aid used to sell the voucher program in Milwaukee though state tax credits and offsets have reduced the MPS portion of the so-called MPS levy…

To put it another way that would spell it out for the bean counters, the city’s tax levy has gone up a modest 1.2% since 2013 (and the city has been a responsible steward of the public money) but the MPS, listed as rising 1% in costs, actually dropped by .06%. It was the MPCP that actually went up 8.5%, so while MPS is spending less this year it looks like it is spending more.
And the voucher backers aren’t done with their attempts to deceive the public on the costs their cronyist giveaway cause for the average citizen. Take a look at this garbage from School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender, who felt a need to send out a press release in light of the fact that the vast majority of voucher students were already attending private school before the student got his/her voucher. In the process, Bender inadvertently gives away how getting their hands on taxpayer dollars adds a source of funding and flexibility for these (mostly-religious) private schools.
School Choice Wisconsin interviewed all the WPCP schools and found some interesting enrollment trends not mentioned in the [Department of Public Instruction’s’] press release. First, 99% of the students that were previously attending the private school before receiving a voucher were attending on a scholarship. As only low-income students qualify for the WPCP, this is not surprising.

Second,the private schools were able to offer their freed-­‐up scholarship dollars to public school students who had applied for a voucher, but were not lucky enough to be drawn in the lottery. In the end, 237 students that were attending public schools last year at taxpayer expense are now attending private school on a scholarship. Those students joined the 101 public school students who were selected through the lottery for a voucher.
In other words, they are using the voucher money (which comes from taxpayers throughout the state) to free up scholarship money that allows them to steal students from public schools. At the same time, the vouchers lead to less funding for the public schools, and requires them to rely more on property taxes to pay for the lost state aid. How is that not a “separate-but-equal” system of education where one type of school gets advantages that other types of schools do not? And notice Bender doesn’t talk about raising teacher pay or increasing the quality of the school, because the voucher program is only about grabbing more resources for the school and the church that often operates it. What a total scam!

But wait, there’s more from ol’ Jimmy, as he tries the zombie lie of “voucher schools cost less.”
For taxpayers, this means that, over time, those students that move from public schools to scholarships or vouchers in private schools cost less. These fiscal trends are certainly complicated, but the impact of this program is very straightforward – it connects students and parents with quality schools at a lower cost.
One problem with that argument. WE DON’T KNOW IF IT COSTS LESS TO EDUCATE A KID IN A VOUCHER SCHOOL. Bender himself mentioned above that donations and scholarships and other sources of funding go into these voucher schools beyond just taxpayer dollars, so unless we have all those costs included, we really can’t make the apples-to-apples comparison with public schools on whether they truly are “lower cost.” It could just as easily be true that these voucher schools are more top-heavy with administrative salaries and with higher overall costs per student than public schools, but since the voucher schools won’t open the books on ALL of their sources of funding, we don’t have the ability to make that comparison.

What we can do is to look at the results that have come out of these schools in Milwaukee after 25 years of their voucher program being in effect, and they aren’t too good. For example, we know that voucher schools scored lower than MPS students on standardized tests in the last school year, and that sketchy schools are still being allowed to grab $4.6 million this year in taxpayer funding despite having only 2% of its students rank as “proficient” in reading. If Scott Walker, the WisGOP Legislature and the voucher backers that funded their campaigns (and who ran ads that were about any topic BUT education) truly cared about raising the quality of education in Wisconsin, they’d cut these schools off from state aid, much like how they might try to do with certain public schools within MPS and other urban districts. If these people were truly interesting in reforming education, they would immediately reduce funding for voucher schools with 2% proficiency and/or demand high standards from the schools that are allowed to stay in the voucher program.

But the WisGOPs and the voucher lobbyists aren’t asking for that, are they? Nope, they’re about the MONEY AND POWER, and they don’t care what happens to Milwaukee’s property taxpayers or improving the state’s quality of teaching or its labor pool, or pretty much anything else that will suffer as a result of their greed

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Today's audit question- how do you keep Wisconsinites from their benefits?

Another day, another audit from the Legislative Audit Bureau. This one was organized after complaints that Wisconsinites were facing barriers in filing unemployment claims with the state’s Department of Workforce Development. Turns out that they had good reason to complain, as a large amount of people looking to contact DWD by phone in order to receive their benefits weren’t able to get through, and found themselves kicked out of the state’s automated phone system.
DWD indicated that it typically limited the size of the queues in order to minimize wait times. If more calls were received than available spots in a queue, some calls were blocked from entering the queue, and the individuals were instructed to call again later. In FY 2013-14, almost 1.7 million calls to the call centers, or 60.2 percent of the total, were blocked because a queue was full.

Call volumes were high from December 2013 through January 2014, compared to other times in FY 2013-14. During that two-month period, individuals made an average of 93,000 calls per week to the telephone line for initial claims. During other months in the fiscal year, individuals made an average of less than 10,000 calls per week to that telephone line.

The percentage of telephone calls blocked because a queue was full varied considerably during certain months in FY 2013-14, as shown in Figure 1. From December 2013 through January 2014, more than 80.0 percent of the 836,700 calls to the telephone line for initial claims were blocked. In contrast, less than 10.0 percent of the 155,500 calls from February through June 2014 were blocked.
December and January are typically the highest months for unemployment claims in Wisconsin, due to colder weather ending seasonal work and holiday-related layoffs, but having more than 4 out of 5 calls not even get through is absurd. And the report goes on to note that the Fiscal Year 2013-14 had a much higher rate of rejection than the two years before it, despite a larger amount of unemployment claims being reported in those prior years.

Total initial claims filed, Wisconsin
FY 2011-12 945,400
FY 2012-13 792,300
FY 2013-14 520,100

“Kickout” rate, DWD unemployment benefits
FY 2011-12 43.5%
FY 2012-13 41.8%
FY 2013-14 60.2%

It sure makes you wonder if some of that 34.4% drop in initial claims for 2013-14 might be related to these phone issues, though the Obama Jobs Recovery picking up steam also played a role in bringing those numbers down. Quite convenient that the drop happened ahead of the 2014 elections, didn’t it? (As Fox News would say, “I’m just throwing it out there!”)

It is mentioned in the audit that DWD has taken action in recent months to increase the ability to file unemployment claims online and to allow individuals to obtain their benefits information, and that more temporary employees are to be hired for the peak benefit season that occurs this time of the year. And since those changes started over the last two months, there has been a noticeable early uptick in the number of new unemployment claims filed in the state (as pointed out in this post from last week).

But the lack of capacity that led to all these kickouts on the DWD phone line calls to mind another LAB report from last week, where they reported the Government Accountability Board could not carry out its duties due to understaffing and a related lack of resources. As State Sen. (and Joint Legislative Audit Committee member) Kathleen Vinehout notes, this seems to be a trend in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, where an agency’s ability to do its job often goes by the wayside as a result of budget-cutting and “efficiency” moves.
Problems must be corrected. The agency response to the audit sets out details on how to do this. Some agency failures happened before 2011. Clearly tight budgets and tough workloads are not the only explanation.

But lawmakers can’t starve the agency, load it with additional work, and then complain staff isn’t doing the job fast enough.

If Wisconsin wants clean elections, transparent campaigns and lobbying and ethics among elected officials, the state must provide the GAB with adequate resources to do the job.
It is instructive to note that the Republican chairs of the Audit Committee (Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. Samantha Kerkman) put out a release today that was supportive of the DWD’s attempts to improve its services and are taking a wait-and-see approach on how they pan out. This is in marked contrast to the WisGOP/right-wing media machine’s drumbeat to denigrate and blow up the GAB, and stack it with more GOP hacks to allow “decisions to be made.” Funny how the remedy tends to change depending on whether or not the GOP is in charge of the agency, isn’t it?

It proves yet again that Republicans think the biggest role of government is not to protect the common good, but instead to use the resources of government to grab more money for themselves and their campaign contributors, and to be utilized government as a mechanism to grab more power and control.

Monday, December 15, 2014

WisGOP doesn't want to fix GAB flaws- they want to rig it

In Wisconsin’s right-wing world, Friday’s release of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report on the state’s Government Accountability Board is the documentation they need to defang and deform reform the agency, amid right-wing claims the agency is not doing its job in running elections fairly. And to a point, I agree, the GAB isn’t doing a good enough job. But the reasons why I think that probably aren’t the same as the righties- because the audit on GAB clearly shows it to be an underfunded overseer of elections and campaigns, and it needs more resources and staffing to carry out its job.

Among other problems, the LAB notes that the GAB wasn’t following up on violations on campaign finance disclosures and other related election laws.
In overseeing campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws, statutes allow GAB to assess penalties for various violations. In February 2008, GAB approved a schedule indicating the penalties staff are to assess for various statutory violations, including campaign finance reports that were filed late. We found that staff developed a manual that specified penalty amounts that differed from those in GAB’s schedule. GAB did not approve this manual. From FY 2010-11 through FY 2012-13, staff did not assess penalties for 655 of 674 reports that were late and should have resulted in penalties under the staff’s manual. All 19 penalties that staff did assess were for amounts inconsistent with GAB’s penalty schedule and the staff’s manual.

Staff indicated that they focused on obtaining compliance with statutory requirements, rather than assessing penalties for statutory violations. Staff were unable to provide us with complete information on penalties assessed for violations of campaign contribution limits, or on the number of penalties assessed for violations of lobbying laws, the amounts assessed, or why penalties were sometimes not assessed or were waived even though violations had occurred.

Staff did not regularly update GAB with complete information on efforts they took to enforce campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws. For example, staff did not regularly update GAB on the extent to which they assessed penalties for violations of these laws, the amounts assessed, and the amounts paid. However, staff did regularly update GAB on the extent to which state officials and employees did not file statements of economic interests on time.
And even in the handful of cases where organizations and candidates were penalized for breaking these rules, the amount of the fine was miniscule- $2,775 total for the 19 violations that occurred between 2010 and 2012. The GAB's toothless enforcement and small amount of fines makes it a worthwhile gamble to flout campaign finance limits and hide donation information, since most violations apparently will not be dealt with, and any prosecution and fines that do take place usually won’t happen until well after the elections (kind of like how the John Doe investigation has been stalled by legal maneuvers). If that’s the way things are being run, why not cheat and hide the sources of money from the GAB and the public?

In addition, the LAB says 119 campaign finance reports were missing when they should have been required, and added that GAB staff would often stop requesting information if a candidate or entity wouldn’t respond, especially if that candidate didn’t win. With that in mind, what’s stopping a shadowy group from dropping a ton of money on ads or other election-related activities at a key moment, and then slinking away after the election with no trail of who these people are and why they would be interested in these elections. Which is exactly what the John Doe targets and related right-wing oligarchs want to do- to spend as much money as they want and conceal the source of those funds, so the people don’t know who’s pulling the puppet strings.

The GAB was apparently aware of these problems, and asked for funding to hire enough staff to handle these concerns. But Governor Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature didn’t feel like providing the resources that GAB said they needed to adequately do their job. Makes you wonder why, doesn’t it? As LAB’s report notes
GAB has included requests for additional staff in each of its last three biennial budget requests. In its 2011-13 Biennial Budget Request, it requested to convert 21.00 federally funded project positions into permanent GPR-funded positions, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2013-15 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested six new GPR-funded positions for its Elections Division, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2015-17 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested to convert 22.0 federally funded project positions into permanent federally funded positions, the costs of which GAB’s staff indicated can be covered by existing federal revenue until FY 2016-17. Thereafter, another funding source would need to be identified to fund these positions. The Biennial Budget Request indicates that the loss of these 22.0 positions would impair the ability of GAB’s staff to fulfill certain statutorily required duties, such as overseeing election administration. For example, all staff who train local election officials are currently in federally funded project positions.
You can bet the real WisGOP plan is to defund GAB even further, to allow even more sketchiness to slip by, and allow for more rigging of our campaign finance system in favor of the rich and powerful. It’ll work even better if the GOP is able to “pack” the GAB with hacks who will side with pro-Republican interests, to destroy any semblance of independence and upholding of ethics that may exist within the GAB.

In contrast to the major flaws in enforcing campaign finance and ethics rules, Wisconsin’s elections seemed to run fairly smoothly. From GAB’s own report (see Page 60 of the packet for this week’s meeting), it seems like the biggest problems were not that voting requirements were ignored on Election Day (unlike what WisGOP and AM radio will tell you), but instead that a small minority of poll workers are being too restrictive when it comes to letting people vote. This is particularly true of people who had already registered ahead of November 4.
•There were several reports of inspectors requiring registered voters to provide proof of residence, and requiring registering voters to produce multiple proof of residence documents. (A municipal clerk stated that a TV station in the Brown County area was reporting that more than one type of proof of residence was required, which may explain the occurrences in that area, but does not explain the reports of this activity in other parts of the state.)

• There was only one confirmed report of inspectors requiring photo ID. The clerk confirmed she had instructed her inspectors to do this because she was not aware that the photo ID requirement was not in effect for the General Election. (#headdesk)

•After the polls closed on Election Night, the City of Stoughton Clerk and Election Inspectors reviewed the voting equipment results tapes and noticed there were only 16 votes recorded for the City of Stoughton “Move to Amend” advisory referendum. The City Clerk immediately contacted the Dane County Clerk’s office and G.A.B. Following G.A.B. staff’s recommendation, a hand count of the votes cast for the referendum was conducted at the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) meeting on Monday, November 10, 2014. The results of the hand count revealed that the referendum passed 4,440 to 992, and the referendum results were certified by the City of Stoughton municipal board of canvassers.

Further investigation exposed a coding error on the ballots for the municipal referendum. After reviewing the Public Test tapes and test deck after the election, it was found that the coding problem was not caught at the time of the Public Test. Measures have been put into place to help prevent this from happening again in the future.
What might be more concerning is the fact that several types of election equipment were not audited for several years after the election had taken place (noted on pages 49-51 of the audit’s PDF), meaning the horse was already out of the barn if there was any chicanery going on that allowed vote totals to be misreported. The audit says that the error rates for election equipment were within the acceptable federal standard, but the fact that these audits weren’t taking place until well after elections and the “winner” had taken office is worrysome- and a big reason why seems to be underfunding of the GAB.

Likewise, our local municipalities also seem to be underfunded when it comes to properly running elections. Look at this passage in the LAB’s audit.
In December 2013, GAB’s staff surveyed county clerks and received responses pertaining to1,231 municipalities, including 649 municipalities that reported using electronic voting equipment. County clerks reported that 325 of the 649 municipalities (50.1 percent) used equipment at least ten years old, and that 260 municipalities (40.1 percent) used equipment that had been approved by the former State Elections Board under 1990 federal standards that have since been superseded. GAB’s staff indicated that although some municipal clerks are concerned that older equipment is more likely to cease operating, the cost to purchase new equipment and train local election officials to use it has meant that some older equipment has not been replaced. In addition, staff indicated that some clerks are concerned that new equipment may not integrate with existing equipment or provide the desired functionality.
Given that a lack of time and resources to adequately do the job of regulating and enforcing elections and campaigns seems to be the biggest problem in the GAB, maybe we should worry about taking care of those duties before we start blowing up its board and structure. Just a thought.