Elsewhere on this page of your favorite weekly newspaper Sen. Dale Schultz (R–Richland Center) is in favor of a new process to draw state Senate and Assembly districts after the next U.S. Census.
The proposal is supported by two of the Senate’s three renegade Republicans — Schultz and Sen. Mike Ellis (R–Neenah). A similar plan is supported by a group of freshman Assembly Democrats who find themselves on the wrong side of the dictatorship of the majority that is the state Assembly. Many of the state’s daily newspapers, including the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, are on a crusade to reform redistricting.
I support a nonpartisan redistricting process, because the purpose of the legislative process is not to cement legislators or legislators’ parties in their seats. But I do not believe that redistricting would make many legislative seats more competitive. And redistricting reform would not solve the major problems with state government, of which Schultz is emblematic because he was first elected to the Legislature when I was a high school senior.
If state Republican Party leadership thought about more than the next election, the GOP would realize that redistricting reform would benefit them by preventing the Democratic Party from doing what the GOP did in 2011, which was no more than Democrats would have done had they controlled the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. (When Democrats won all that in the 1982 election, the Democrats undid a federal court-drawn legislative map and wrote one of their own.) The purpose of redistricting has metastasized to benefit incumbents or incumbent parties along with the party drawing the maps.
However, the New Republic earlier this year made this point about the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives that applies in this state too: “Republicans reside in safely conservative districts for a simple reason: It’s difficult to draw competitive districts in a deeply polarized country.” Or state.
Everyone who pays attention to state politics knows which parts of Wisconsin are dominated by which party — Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse and the Wausau/Stevens Point/Wood County areas are Democratic; suburban Milwaukee and the Fox River Valley and most areas outside the aforementioned Democratic strongholds trend Republican. The area this newspaper covers has been represented far more often by Republicans than Democrats. The 17th Senate District, considered one of the few competitive legislative seats, has been represented by a Democrat once since 1853. (She was Platteville’s Kathryn Morrison.)
The bigger issue than redistricting is the outsize and growing influence of government, and therefore politicians, at every level has on our lives. (Yes, that means your favorite town or village board or city council too. Was I the only person who noticed at the Oct. 22 Common Council meeting the statement that any activity not specifically allowed by city code is prohibited?)
The state’s 33 senators and 99 representatives each make $49,943 per year, plus $88 per day when in Madison on state business, plus 51 cents per mile. (Legislators’ salary and benefits can be read at http://legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/acc/Documents/Benefits.pdf. You won’t be happy with what you read.) According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the median household income was $51,598 in this state, $48,114 in Lafayette County, and $43,889 in Grant County. The number of times you read the words “Full-time legislator” in a legislator’s biography in the 2013–14 Wisconsin Blue Book is that many more than were ever intended to be full-time legislators by the founders of this state.
Wonder why politics has gotten as nasty as it now is? Go back and read that previous paragraph. When a politician makes more money by himself or herself than most of his or her constituents, there’s something extremely wrong with the system. (As you know, I believe the Platteville School Board earns the correct amount of pay for all elective bodies. They aren’t paid at all.) The stakes have grown so large that it is imperative to spend whatever money it takes, and do whatever it takes, to win.
Moreover, redistricting does not trump elections. After the redistricting following the 2000 Census, which was done in the federal courts, Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007 and the Assembly in 2009 … and lost control of both after the 2010 election. If redistricting guaranteed party control, Reps. Gabe Loeffelholz (R–Platteville) and Steve Freese (R–Dodgeville) would not have lost their 49th and 51st Assembly district seats, respectively, in 2006 to Reps. Phil Garthwaite (D–Dickeyville) and Steve Hilgenberg (D–Dodgeville). Similarly, Garthwaite would not have lost to Rep. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City) and Hilgenberg’s would-be successor, John Simonson, wouldn’t have lost to Rep. Howard Marklein (R–Spring Green) four years later.
Regardless of which party does it, when redistricting is done to benefit either a party or incumbents, that does not benefit the voters. The interests of people who live in the Wisconsin suburbs of Minneapolis–St. Paul are not necessarily the same interests of those who live in Platteville, but we’re all in the Third Congressional District. For that matter, the interests of people who live near the Wisconsin Dells are not necessarily the same interests of those who live in Belmont, but we’re all in the 17th Senate District.
However, to expect politicians to willingly give up their own power is naïve. This state does not have the initiative process in which non-legislators can introduce a statewide constitutional amendment referendum to, in this case, reform redistricting. This state alone has more cases than you can count of political candidates who run on “reform” who suddenly forget about reform once they attain power. (Schultz once favored getting school taxes off property taxes. Would it be cynical of me to suggest that the aforementioned Assembly Democrats might lose their interest in redistricting reform the next time the Democrats attain the Assembly majority?) Remember that Lord Action said power corrupts. Or, in more divine language, read Psalm 149:3.