Political and Government News: Republican law firm ordered to pay $17,500 to a Demorcratic group over redistricting
MADISON - A Republican law firm has been ordered to pay $17,500 to a Democratic group that's suing GOP legislators over the redistricting plan they drafted.
Three federal judges ruled last week that Republicans and their attorneys from Michael Best and Friedrich have been stonewalling the court's orders to tell the Democrats how they drafted the new state legislative and congressional district maps they approved last year. The judges ordered the law firm and its attorneys to personally pay the Democrats' legal fees in their failed efforts to get GOP consultants to answer detailed questions. The plaintiffs submitted their bill yesterday. The majority Republican lawmakers had budgeted $400,000 tax dollars to cover its legal costs in fighting the Democrats' effort to strike down the new maps.
Thousands of Wisconsinites may have been placed in the wrong communities, school districts, and voting wards due to an apparent error in the state's re-districting process. Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus says almost 15,000 people in her area need to have their jurisdictions corrected - and she says Waukesha is not the only place where the mistake occurred. Reid Magney of the state Government Accountability Board told the Wisconsin State Journal that the GOP redistricting plan provides challenges in assigning voters to their proper districts. And he said the board is working with municipalities to get everyone assigned correctly. In a memo from mid-November, the board said there were quote, "anomalies" between census data and actual municipal boundaries - and the board planned to give instructions to local clerks to place voters in their correct municipalities. Magney said he could not comment further because of a federal lawsuit from Democrats which seeks to nullify the Republicans' new state legislative districts. Democrats are trying to find out how those maps were drafted - and judges have ordered GOP consultants three times to provide the details.
Governor Scott Walker's office says some of the $456-million in state and local government waste uncovered by a special commission has already been addressed. But spokesman Cullen Werwie says it would take time to determine how much of the savings have been realized - and how much would directly benefit Wisconsin taxpayers. Savings in federal programs like Food-Share would be reaped by taxpayers nationally. The same is true for Medicaid, the costs of which are split between the state-and-federal governments. The governor's commission said $177-million of the waste-and-fraud it found were in programs for the needy like Medicaid and Food-Share. The panel's report says state employee overtime is one example of waste that's already been addressed. A recent policy change is designed to save over five-million-dollars a year. The commission also found that the state has reduced its efforts to catch fraud-and-abuse in government programs, even though some programs like Medicaid have grown rapidly due to the Great Recession. Among other things, the panel said it's "troubling" that a Medicaid quality control unit has not been staffed for two years - even though the federal government requires such a unit to make sure benefits are handled accurately.
Two legislative Democrats say there are some misleading conclusions in a report that spells out potential savings by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse of state tax dollars. Madison Representative Mark Pocan and South Milwaukee Senator Chris Larsen served on a governor's commission to look for waste in state government. They said today that the report identified savings that were already achieved -- or needed action from the federal government in order to be realized. The commission identified a total of $455-million in savings per year by state-and-local governments. It included $177-million by ending misuse and fraud in public assistance programs, and $50-million a year in unnecessary state spending. When Walker ran for governor in 2010, he promised to find $300-million each year in state fraud, abuse, and waste.
The Wisconsin State Assembly plans to vote nine days from now on the bill that makes it easier to get state permits for new iron ore mines like the one planned near Lake Superior. GOP Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald of Horicon said he'd like a vote on January 19th, but nothing's definite yet. Gogebic Taconite wants to build the state's largest mine ever -- a one-and-a-half billion-dollar facility in Ashland and Iron counties. It would create an estimated 700 full-time jobs after it opens, and supporters say the jobs are badly needed in the region. But environmentalists and the Bad River Indian Tribe say it would hurt water quality. And critics are concerned about a proposed relaxing of environmental standards for those projects, with fewer chances for public input and complaints. The Assembly Jobs Committee will hold a second public hearing on the measure tomorrow in Hurley.
The state Corrections Department says it's trying to find out who was behind an order last week to send a youth counselor home without pay for wearing a T-shirt with a union logo. A union at the Lincoln Hills School in Lincoln County staged a protest with 75 people yesterday, after Ron McAllister refused to remove a union T-shirt. Lincoln Hills Superintendent Paul Westerhaus gave the actual order. But McAllister said it had to come from somebody higher up. Corrections officials in Madison sent out a memo on Friday which said employees could wear union clothing. Troy Bauch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees said yesterday's rally was still held outside the youth institution, so the employees could vocalize their support for the recall effort against Governor Scott Walker. Bauch said he suspected that Westerhaus acted on the Republican governor's behalf in sending McAllister home. Westerhaus has not commented.
Two counties in north central Wisconsin have been declared as agricultural disaster areas, to help farmers cover crop losses from wet-and-cool weather last September. Governor Scott Walker said today that the USDA approved the state's request to declare Marathon and Lincoln counties as farm disaster areas. That makes low-interest emergency loans available from the Farm Service Agency for growers in the two counties - plus eight other counties which are right next door. Those counties are Clark, Wood, Portage, Waupaca, Langlade, Oneida, Taylor, and Price. Farmers in the affected areas have eight months to apply for loans. When the governor applied for the disaster aid, he said a delayed harvest caused root-rot, which hurt part of the ginseng that's grown in the region. Walker said the ginseng losses could be up to 75-percent of the crop in north central areas. He also made a separate disaster aid request for Burnett and Polk counties, where over a-third of the crop was lost when a killing frost hit in mid-September.
A third ethics complaint has been filed against State Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. The Milwaukee worker rights' group 9-to-5 accuses Gableman of breaking a state law when he failed to pay for legal services he received in defending an ethics complaint against him. The services were provided by Michael Best and Friedrich. It's the same law firm which represented the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce, when that group filed suit against the city's ordinance to make employers give mandatory sick leave. The 9-to-5 group pushed for a binding referendum, in which voters approved the sick leave requirement. The Supreme Court ruled against the measure on a 3-3 vote in 2010. Had Gableman stepped aside, the ordinance would have been upheld on a 3-2 vote. 9-to-5 joined the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign in asking the Government Accountability Board to investigate the free legal services. The Democracy Campaign has also filed a complaint with the state's Judicial Commission, which oversees judicial conduct.