Scott Walker is the first governor in Wisconsin history to place himself explicitly and consistently at odds with the rule of law, the state’s open meetings and open government policies and a tradition of inviting participation in the state’s electoral and governing processes by the great mass of citizens.
As much as his attacks on the rights of workers to collectively bargain may have inspired the mass protests against the governor, his assaults on open government and representative democracy have sustained the opposition to his tenure and built support for his removal via the recall process.
There is no need to separate concerns about Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights from concerns about his assaults on democracy. They are closely related. The same authoritarian impulse that leads leaders to try to structurally disable their political critics leads them to try to prevent citizen participation in the choosing of elected officials and holding them to account.
But it is important to recognize that, in addition to the damage Walker has done to labor relations and the economy of the state, he has done severe damage to Wisconsin’s open government tradition.
That is why we are so encouraged that former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a leading contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the race with Walker, has developed a sweeping ethics and transparency plan.
Falk says her “Reopen Wisconsin for the People” initiative is designed to renew faith in the governor’s office by restoring “the honesty, openness, transparency and accountability that has been lost due to Gov. Scott Walker’s actions over the last year.”
“Through his actions, Gov. Walker has lost the trust of the people of Wisconsin and this is why more than 1 million citizens signed recall petitions against him,” said Falk. “As governor, I will work hard to earn your trust and work even harder to keep it.”
While the rhetoric is right, what’s most impressive about Falk’s plan is her focus on the specifics of repairing what Walker has broken.
In this regard, she proposes to:
1. “Bring Wisconsin together through openness and transparency in the governor’s office: Falk will make her schedule public, unlike Walker, who does not. The day after she is elected governor, Kathleen will go to Waukesha where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than two to one as an immediate start to bringing Wisconsin back together, to heal the divide Walker created, and to be a leader for all of the people – not just those in one political party.”
2. “Give Wisconsinites access to how their tax dollars are being spent: Falk will order that state budget information be posted on the Internet in easily searchable formats, including the salaries and reimbursements of government officials, state contracts awarded and other pertinent information.”
3. “Initiate redistricting reform: Falk’s plan, based in part on the successful Iowa model, would have nonpartisan, independent staff draw the boundaries, end the use of taxpayer funds for hiring of private legal counsel associated with redistricting, place priority on constitutional redistricting principles, require explicitly the state adhere to the federal Voting Rights Act, and direct that communications related to drawing of maps are available for public inspection upon request.”
4. “Establish a citizen commission on integrity and transparency: Falk will create a citizen commission of Wisconsin citizens to develop a plan for increasing transparency for every area of government. This includes removing the more than three-dozen political patronage jobs created by Gov. Walker, as well as posting the hiring of top managers and officials in her administration.”
5. “Revive the Democracy Trust Fund and Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund: Falk will restore the Democracy Trust Fund and the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund that Walker ended.”
6. “Honor the open meetings law: Falk has been a longtime champion for open and accountable government and as Dane County executive, Falk filed the first lawsuit against the open meetings violation in the passage of Gov. Walker’s infamous budget bill that took away workers’ rights. Falk will ensure the Department of Administration does not infringe on the rights of the people with regards to the legal rights of assembly and speech in the Capitol.”
7. “Protect our right to vote: Falk opposes Walker’s voter suppression bill, which is costing taxpayers over $17 million to implement, is an unfunded mandate on local government, makes it harder for hundreds of thousands of eligible citizens to vote, and purports to ‘solve’ a problem that doesn’t exist.”
I’d add a few more items, such as restoring the traditional September primary date, protecting the recall power from threats by right-wing legislators who want to diminish it, and rebuilding the authority of the elected positions of secretary of state and state treasurer, in order to better hold to account decision makers dealing with elections and fiscal matters. And I’d propose amending the state constitution so that voters can overturn laws with a veto referendum, like the one that Ohioans used to block Gov. John Kasich’s anti-labor initiatives.
But Falk has sent the right signal here. And in so doing she has set a standard that other contenders — not just for governor but for lieutenant governor and in the state Senate recalls — should aspire to.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. He is the author of “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, From Madison to Wall Street,” which has just been published by Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.