Budget Process Shows Why Partisan Gerrymandering Must End

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June 28, 2019 Update: By now you have probably heard that the US Supreme Court in Rucho v. Common Cause, in another 5-4 decision on a matter impacting literally every citizen, opined that the federal courts are essentially powerless to reign in extreme partisan gerrymandering. Justice Elana Kagan put forth a blistering dissent in response to Chief Justice Roberts’ naïve or willfully obtuse argument that it is up to the legislators in individual states to create fairer election districts. Wrote Kagan: ” “The politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.”

What does this mean for Wisconsin’s extremely gerrymandered districts? A couple of things. First, the legislative elections of 2020 should now be considered URGENT. The Democrats need to be able to take back control of the state Senate in order to prevent a map-making debacle similar to what happened in 2011. Second, Governor Tony Evers (who is not up for reelection until 2022) needs to make good on his promise to veto gerrymandered maps. Finally, we the people need to continue to impress upon the Republican majority that they do a disservice even to their own base when they place power grabs and naked partisanship above the needs of the people. –TP

As I write in late June, Wisconsin’s Republican majorities in the State Assembly and State Senate are on the verge of sending Democratic Governor Tony Evers a budget he is not likely to accept. From the beginning of the budget “deliberations” (in quotes because we do not actually have any meaningful budget deliberations in Wisconsin), the Republicans were clear that they were not going to accept Mr. Evers’ requests on health care, education funding, and how to pay for road repairs. The governor almost certainly will not sign whatever budget the Republicans send him, leaving him with the options of vetoing the entire document or (as many previous governors have done) enacting partial vetoes. We’ll soon see.

Governor Tony Evers traveled the state and participated in a bunch of citizen-led listening sessions. Even though polls show majority support for his health care, education, and other initiatives, extreme partisan gerrymandering is making it very difficult for him to deliver.

So-called representative government in Wisconsin has been on life-support for a long time, but if anyone still needs proof of that they need look no further than the process that gave us this budget stalemate. The Republican legislative majority is able to thwart initiatives not only supported by Governor Evers, but by the majority of Wisconsinites. Consider these results from the April, 2019 Marquette poll:

Fifty-nine percent of voters say marijuana use should be legal, while 36 percent say it should not be legal. A substantial majority, 83 percent, say use of marijuana for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription should be legal, with 12 percent saying it should not be.

Seventy-four percent support a major increase in state aid for special education, while 19 percent oppose such an increase.

Forty-one percent support a freeze on the number of students in voucher schools and a suspension of new independent charter schools, while 46 percent are opposed.

Seventy percent say the state should accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage, while 23 percent oppose the expansion.

Wisconsin is one of only 14 states that have not accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid. A clear majority of citizens would like to see the expansion.

More respondents prefer to keep gas taxes and registration fees at the current level (57 percent) than support increasing the gas tax and fees in order to increase spending on roads and highways (39 percent).

Support for an increase in the minimum wage stands at 57 percent, with 38 percent opposing an increase.

Opinion has recently fluctuated concerning Foxconn. Forty-one percent say the state subsidies to Foxconn will be worth the cost, while 47 percent think the project will cost more than it is worth.

The only issue on that list for which the Republicans can claim any kind of majority support across party lines is their opposition to increasing the gas tax. On everything else, clear majorities support the governor’s positions.

The problem is in the way our legislative districts are drawn. A healthy political map is one that forces elected officials to weigh and consider the viewpoints of the opposition–if for no other reason than that they might face a serious challenge in the next election. That’s the way representative democracy is supposed to work.

A sick political map is one that actually discourages elected officials from weighing and considering the viewpoints of the opposition. That makes a mockery of representative democracy. We saw signs of the sickness in the budget process. Here’s just two:

Lack of Communication: The Republican majority made little attempt to work with Evers or minority Democrats in the legislature as they picked apart the governor’s budget and wrote their own. They can do this because most of them will go home to safe districts. Would the Democrats have done the same if they were in the majority? Probably yes, AND THAT’S THE POINT. Until We The People choose our representatives–as opposed to the current system of representatives literally choosing their voters–we’re going to be caught in this terrible pattern of one-party rule.

For some pols, bad policy is better than primary opposition: At least two Republicans in the Senate have announced that they will not vote for the budget coming out of the Republican Assembly. They oppose the budget not because they have any sympathy for Governor Evers’ proposals, but because they want the budget to go even further to the right. In other words, they are more worried about being opposed in a Republican primary by candidates even more conservative than by any kind of Democratic threat.

The Supreme Court will soon decide on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in cases coming out of North Carolina and Maryland. Should the Court decide that extreme partisan gerrymandering is constitutional, Wisconsin along with all other states that allow politicians to pick their voters will continue to get bad legislative results, increased cynicism among the electorate, and continued control of government by wealthy and well-connected special interests.

When voters are given the opportunity to express support for the creation of fair legislative district maps that would make districts more competitive, they almost always say YES!

Let’s hope and pray that the Supreme Court does the right thing. Even if they don’t, the legislature can still show some leadership and create fair maps. According to Common Cause in Wisconsin, citing the same Marquette Poll mentioned above, “72 percent of Wisconsinites support ending partisan gerrymandering and adopting a non-partisan redistricting process such as Iowa’s. 62 percent of all Republicans support this, the poll found.” Jay Heck, Executive Director of CC/WI, has it right: “Almost every Republican WI state legislator represents counties that support ending partisan gerrymandering. It’s time for them to listen to their constituents and do the same!”

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About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004. You can find more information about him at www.tonypalmeri.com

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