In 2018 Democrat Dan Schierl challenged incumbent Republican Mike Rohrkaste in the 55th Assembly District. Schierl, retired since 2015, said this in his campaign announcement:
“I know firsthand how frustrated people locally and everywhere are due to the corruption that comes with the special interest money that floods our election system . . . We the people are not being represented because our legislators are not listening to us. They’re only listening to their big donors and their party bosses.”
Schierl lost the race, but his pro-good government, anti-corruption message earned him a respectable showing (45 percent of the vote) for a District seat held by Mr. Rohrkaste since 2015 and by Republican Dean Kaufert from 1990-2015.
Local government officials, most of whom are in a position to know first-hand how Madison politics harms communities, rarely call out the corruption. They will sometimes pass strongly worded resolutions asking the legislature to pass this or that bill, but they almost always stop short of using the “C word” to describe what’s going on down in Mad town. It’s usually left to candidates like Schierl, activists, or pundits to do that.
We saw a refreshing exception to that rule this past week, when Town of Grand Chute Board Chair David Schowalter courageously and astutely, in a public meeting, let Mr. Rohrkaste know that the state legislature’s inability to pass legislation to close the “dark store loophole” was producing direct harm for the citizens of Grand Chute and other communities. He let Mr. Rohrkaste and the community at-large know that the problem is corruption. In January Mr. Schowalter wrote a column about the “Dark Store Secrets” for the Grand Chute Newsletter. He said in part:
What exactly is this “Dark Store” issue you ask? Simply put, property taxes for homeowners and main street businesses are increasing in Wisconsin as national retailers pay less. A carefully-orchestrated wave of hundreds of lawsuits in Wisconsin is forcing assessors to slash the market value of thriving national retail stores, shifting their tax burden to local mom and pop shops and to their home-owning customers. So when you see increases on your local tax bill, you now know who to blame!
Local anger at the Dark Store Loophole is not new. Back in 2017 Justin Mitchell reported right here in the Oshkosh Independent about Oshkosh’s participation in “Dark Store Day.” More than a year later, Oshkosh is being sued by Walmart, a company with $500 billion in sales last year yet has the audacity to take legal action to knock $6.2 million off the assessment of their Washburn Ave. store.
You would be hard pressed to find a handful of residential homeowners and mom and pop businesses, from Maine to California, pleased with the way government officials assess their property for purposes of taxation. Yet unlike the big box retailers, most can’t afford high priced attorney to make our case, and we can’t count on bought out elected officials to do right by us. So basically we have a situation in which Walmart, Walgreens, Lowes, Menards, and others are saying to all their customers, “You want us to pay our fair share of taxes? Fuck you, we’ve got the lawyers and we’ve got the lobby that controls the legislature. Don’t worry, we’ll have some great Black Friday sales for you.”
What’s especially frustrating about all this is that there’s actually bipartisan support in Madison to end the loophole. Unfortunately, the Republican leadership won’t allow the legislation to come up for a vote. Governor Evers included repeal of the loophole in his budget, but the majority Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee–apparently taking orders from their Party leadership, removed the item. Mr. Schowalter–properly in my view–refers to this as a form of corruption.
For representing his constituents ethically by speaking truth to power, Schowalter has faced pushback. Rohrkaste took umbrage at the invocation of the term “corruption,” telling Schowalter that “I find it appalling, childish, and not factual.” Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the business lobby with substantial sway in Madison, sent Schowalter a letter characterizing his remarks as “unfounded and inflammatory” and requesting that he publicly apologize.
If any apologies are owed, it is to Scholwalter and all the citizens of this state who have been misled time and again by politicians who during campaign season promise to have their backs, but then get to Madison and become willing participants in a money driven, broken system that every day makes a mockery of the tradition of good government that Wisconsin once stood for. WMC on their own website applaud Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee for removing not just the governor’s proposals to end the Dark Store Loophole, but a range of additional items. And WMC loves Rep. Rohrkaste.
The state legislature’s inability to fix the Dark Store Loophole, in spite of bipartisan support and clear citizen demand to do so, is but one more state example of what’s become a national phenomenon of public opinion having almost no impact on governance. In 2014 political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page released an important study that explained how corruption came to be the rule in American governance. The authors examined decades worth of data to determine the relationship between public opinion and government policy. Here’s one of their troubling conclusions:
“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it [emphasis added].”
In Gilens’ and Page’s final paragraph, substitute “Wisconsinites” for “Americans” and you’re got in a nutshell what the failure to close the Dark Store Loophole is all about:
“Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened. ”
State Senator Roger Roth (R-Appleton) who represents the Grand Chute area, has now come out and said he hopes the legislature can once again take up the dark store loophole. Kudos to Grand Chute Chair Schowalter for calling out the corruption and essentially forcing Senator Roth to try and get his party leadership to take action. Hopefully Representative Rohrkaste will do the same.
Some Dark Store Loophole Resources: The League of Wisconsin Municipalities maintains a useful archive of Dark Store Loophole resources. You can find it here. To learn more about the bipartisan support for closing the loophole, watch this press conference from May 3, 2017. (More than two years later, WMC and the GOP leaders have been able to block action.). The New York Times in January published an in-depth story (may require subscription) that examined how the dark store assessment impacts Wauwatosa and other Wisconsin communities. The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau released a very useful summary of dark store issues, including how the issue is being dealt with in other states.