By now, the notion that outside special interests drive the political process is so widely accepted as to be almost a cliche. And often this belief is buttressed by the disclosures that lobby groups must make.
Yet when it comes to the hot-button state political issue of redistricting, the process appears driven not by outside special interests but an inside one: the Legislature itself.
Bills to redraw voting boundaries for state legislative districts, congressional districts and municipalities — allegedly in ways skewed to benefit Republicans — were introduced last July 11. The bills promptly passed the GOP-controlled Legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.
Republicans in the Legislature produced completed maps before inviting any public comment. And now it's emerged that GOP lawmakers signed secrecy agreements regarding the process, stirring fresh controversy and potential legal challenges.
"The state redistricting map is rotten and the process by which it passed is rotten," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a Latino advocacy group whose federal lawsuit challenging the maps brought the secrecy pacts to light. The Legislature, she said at a Feb. 8 press conference, "willfully shut out any public opinion."
Peter Earle, the group's attorney, was even harsher, accusing lawmakers of "an intentional and malicious attempt to subvert the transparency that is required of good governance." He argued that the secrecy agreements were illegal, since the private law firm that executed them was hired, with taxpayer dollars, to represent the entire Legislature, not just Republicans.
Not a single lobbying group registered in favor of these redistricting bills, the public record shows. Nine interest groups, including the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the state League of Women Voters, reporting spending a total of 93 hours lobbying against these bills.
How could an issue this politically charged be so free of special-interest involvement on the prevailing side? State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, has a theory: The Legislature's Republican majority, he says, is "trying to pick their voters" — through redistricting and new rules for voter identification — so they can keep serving the corporate benefactors who pump cash into their campaigns.
But interest groups with paid lobbyists must register with the state and report how much time and money they spend communicating with lawmakers. And on redistricting, the Legislature's actions over the past decade have run contrary to the input it's received.
In 2001, some Assembly Democrats introduced a resolution to limit spending on outside legal assistance for redistricting. No lobby group staked out a position, and the resolution died.
Two years later, another resolution asked for the Joint Legislative Council to study the creation of an independent citizens commission to handle redistricting, as is done in other states. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign registered in favor but did not spend any time lobbying, and the resolution was promptly shelved.
When this resolution resurfaced in 2005, five groups registered in favor, devoting a total of seven hours to the cause; no groups were opposed. A public hearing was held but the resolution went nowhere. Similar bills introduced in 2007 and 2009 drew no lobby group opposition, nine hours of lobby time, one more public hearing and no success.
Last July 13, just after the new maps were unveiled, the Legislature held a single hearing on redistricting. Forty-nine people registered and 21 spoke against the bills; one person registered and six spoke in favor, including aides to Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. That's an overall margin of 10 to one.
In other words, the Legislature's GOP leadership passed redistricting maps that were drafted in secret and received almost no public support, financial or otherwise, from any quarter. In this case, it seems, the legislators were motivated by a deeper core principle: self-interest.
Bill Lueders is director of the Money and Politics Project at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization. The project, a partnership of the center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.