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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

Scott Jensen Agrees to a Plea Deal

Did the caucus case miss the real target?

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After an eight-year saga, the disposition of the last case in the state legislative “caucus scandal” was finalized when former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen agreed to a plea deal. Jensen had been convicted of three felonies and a misdemeanor in a Dane County court and faced prison time, but a new trial was ordered when his conviction was overturned on a technicality. In the meantime, the Legislature had passed a law allowing legislators charged with ethics violations at the Capitol to be tried in their home counties instead of in Dane County, where the alleged crimes took place. Jensen utilized this legislative gift and successfully moved to have his case sent to Waukesha, where the Waukesha district attorney settled the case without a felony conviction.

This settlement has to be a great relief for Jensen and his family, who lived with the fact that he could have ended up in prison.

In the larger context, this entire matter should not have been handled with felony indictments. Yes, some legislative staff members were used to work on campaigns. But not one of the four legislative leaders—Jensen, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, Republican Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti and Democratic Sen. Brian Burke—ever put a nickel in their own pockets. This was not a situation where cash was being traded for votes, which would be an entirely different, very serious matter.

This case started when the Wisconsin State Journal revealed the worst-kept secret in the Capitol—that some staff members from both parties were helping on campaigns—and made it into a major issue. Was it wrong? Yes, of course it was. Should it have resulted in felony charges against these four legislators? Most legal experts would say absolutely not. At most, it should have resulted in civil forfeitures and the humiliation and political damage that go along with it.

The real corruption issue in the Capitol is the influence of special interest money and high-paid lobbyists whose sole job is to alter state laws to benefit private special interests at the expense of the public interest. Unfortunately, the special interest money that corrupts the legislative process—and believe us, it does—is perfectly legal. And this past year the U.S. Supreme Court actually expanded that corrupt practice by allowing corporations to use company treasuries to influence elections.

Special interest money works against the public interest, yet it remains legal and continues to grow. But four legislative leaders—two from each party—who undoubtedly were some of the brightest legislators in the Capitol in the past generation had their careers and lives ruined by “a corruption scandal” that was a minor sideshow to the real corruption of special interest money.

Issue of the Week

The Real Cost of Losing Our High-Speed Rail

Think that the cost of Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s refusal of federal high-speed funds is limited to just small change?

Turns out it’s much more costly.

Walker’s anti-development, anti-business stance is leaving the state on the hook for an estimated $113 million in transportation upgrades that would have been covered in the $810 million federal rail package that he refused.

Among the costs, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) found that the state will likely have to cough up $48 million for a permanent train maintenance facility, $19.4 million to make Milwaukee’s train platform comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and about $29 million in freight rail improvements between Madison and Milwaukee. Another estimate puts the cost at $35 million for the state and some counties to upgrade freight rail lines. An additional $12 million to improve Milwaukee’s Downtown station may be at risk, too.

And that $113 million sum doesn’t include state and local losses in wages, taxes, tourism and reputation. The LFB estimated that 4,732 jobs would have been directly created at the peak of the project.

According to a letter hand-delivered to Walker from outgoing Joint Finance Committee co-chairs state Rep. Mark Pocan and state Sen. Mark Miller, “The fact that Wisconsin taxpayers could be potentially on the hook for $113.3 million due to your refusal to welcome Wisconsinites’ federal tax dollars back into our state is of deep concern to us.”

Unfortunately, Gov.-elect Walker’s political posturing for the extreme right-wing of his party is going to cost all of us taxpayers far more money than if the high-speed rail had been built.

Event of the Week

Christmas Family Feast

AM 1290 WMCS and the Salvation Army are teaming up once again to bring the holiday spirit to Milwaukee. The 21st annual Christmas Family Feast takes place Saturday, Dec. 25, at the Frontier Airlines Center, 400 W. Wisconsin Ave. Doors open at 11 a.m.; dinner will be served until 2:30 p.m.

In addition to the free home-style meal, highlights include live Christmas music, a praise dance and a visit from Santa, who will be handing out donated gifts to children.

“The Christmas Family Feast is a day of fellowship and sharing. Families work together and eat together—it’s the true meaning of community in the spirit of the season,” said Chandra Staples, event coordinator for AM 1290 WMCS.

Heroes of the Week

Southeast Milwaukee Interfaith Covenant Community

When the city of Cudahy rejected a proposed temporary homeless shelter based on zoning ordinances last week, local parishes took action to help the destitute escape the cold weather. By hosting all-night prayer services, the parishes were able to keep their doors open to offer a warm, safe refuge from the dangerous weather conditions.

Members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church searched the streets for homeless people and invited them inside. The Southeast Milwaukee Interfaith Covenant Community, which is composed of Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal Christian churches, as well as the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, will continue its efforts to establish a shelter on the South Side of Milwaukee.

Jerk of the Week

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Patrick McIlheran

We’re shocked. Patrick McIlheran’s latest editorial on Gov.-elect Scott Walker’s refusal to accept $810 million in federal funds for high-speed rail actually contained a kernel of truth. Of course, he tried to spin it a different way. McIlheran argued that Walker did Minnesota a favor by refusing to build the Wisconsin portion of a Chicago-Twin Cities rail link. He wrote from an anti-rail, pro-gas-guzzling point of view. However, Minnesota’s rail advocates may agree with him that Walker did them a favor. Why? Because Minnesota is moving forward with its rail planning anyway and its governor-elect, the pro-rail Democrat Mark Dayton, could now have more control over early plans for a Chicago-Twin Cities link that bypasses Wisconsin. In fact, Minnesota advocates are hoping to include Rochester, Minn., home of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, on the rail line. Too bad Wisconsin’s world-class research hubs in Madison and Milwaukee won’t be so fortunate.

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